January 2009

John Madera


The Interrogation by J. M. G. Le Clézio, translated by Daphne Woodward

No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (W. Kaufmann, Trans.)

In J.M.G. Le Clézio’s debut novel The Interrogation, the troubled Adam Pollo struggles to contextualize what he sees and to negotiate often disturbing ideas while simultaneously navigating through, for him, life’s absurdity and emptiness. It’s a novel that may sit, restlessly of course, alongside harried copies of Notes from Underground, The Stranger, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Nausea, etc. At times self-consciously experimental -- how else to explain the artifice of its opening with, “Once upon a little time,” its use of alphabet letters for chapter headings, its authorial intrusions, its inclusion of newspaper clippings, etc? -- it is still a compelling work, not simply because it sheds necessary light on this past year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, but also for its charged, almost frayed, exploration of one man’s consciousness.

Reading about Adam Pollo’s breaking into and living in a deserted beach house, I thought about Stanley Carter, that man who, over the recent holidays, lived undetected in a family’s attic in Plains Township, a suburb of Wilkes-Barre about a hundred miles north of Philadelphia. Besides living on food from the family’s refrigerator, Carter also kept an inventory of everything he’d stolen, including cash, a laptop, and an iPod, in a note he labeled “Stanley’s Christmas List.” After finding a muddy footprint that led to the attic, the homeowners called the police. Dogs were brought to the house and the thief emerged wearing clothing belonging to the family. Carter is clearly a deranged man. I could easily imagine him, like Le Clézio’s Adam Pollo, composing a diary entry saying: “I would so much like this house to stay empty. I hope the owners won’t come back for a long time.”

We first meet Adam sitting motionless for hours in a deck chair near a window at the beach house. He lives in “monstrous solitude,” a time of deep introspection, where he learns to enjoy “fear, idleness and the unusual.” It’s there he writes elliptical and invariably cryptic notes, letters, and musings in a yellow exercise-book. It’s where we meet his “lover” Michèle (I was afraid she would serve mainly as a cardboard prop, or as a kind of target toward which Adam could hurl his philosophical barbs. Unfortunately, this fear was not allayed). It’s also the site of his many visions, like the one of moths “maddened by the yellow blink” of candles, “thronging the ceiling with a multiplicity of shadows and collapsing into the flames, making a wreath of tiny legs round the corolla of boiling wax, sizzling, scraping the air like files against a granite wall, and smothering, one by one, every glimmer of light.” After imagining that the sun has become a golden spider, “its rays covering the sky like golden tentacles,” Adam makes a charcoal drawing of it on the wall. Soon after this, we learn that he’s either just been released from military service or he’s escaped from a mental institution. He’s unsure which. However, once we find him having a conversation with his drawing, to find “courage” as he puts it, it’s easy to surmise that the latter seems more likely.

While endowed with a superhuman, almost godlike vision -- Adam considers himself a “faceted mirror… transformed into memory” itself -- his ability is obscured by paranoia. Adam is terrified and describes his fear as “something dry and charred which was shining and sprinkling,” and likens it to “a kind of horrible, deadly octopus, with its hundred thousand slimy arms like horses’ guts.” Unfortunately, Adam’s “spherical” consciousness, his “verging upon total vision,” does not bring enlightenment, or self-actualization. Instead, it tears Adam to pieces. In the end, his ability to see and make connections -- at turns, wonderfully absurd, erratic, imaginative, or insightful -- is ultimately unbearable and drives him further into madness.

Le Clézio is adept at depicting Adam’s skewed vision through evocative, lushly lyrical, and often surreal and fantastic descriptions. Reading passages like the following, I felt as if I had entered a collage of Hieronymus Bosch’s phantasmagorias with Salvador Dali’s harrowing dreamscapes:

"So far as I’m concerned the earth has turned into a sort of chaos… I’m afraid the hill may turn into a kind of volcano… Or that the polar ice may melt, which would raise the level of the sea and swallow me. I’m afraid of the people on the beach, BELOW. The sand is changing into quicksands, the sun into a spider and the children into shrimps."

His searching gaze penetrated the smallest concavities, the folds of skin or plumage, the scales, the fluffy hairs that sheltered the visibly ignoble slumbers of balls of black hair, masses of flabby cartilage, dusty membranes, red annulations, skin that was cracked and split like a square of earth. He stripped the gardens of their grass, dived head-first into mud, devoured humus voraciously, crawled along burrows at a depth of twelve yards, pawed a new, kindred body borne from the putrefied corpse of a field-mouse. With his mouth drawn down between his shoulders he pushed forward his eyes, his two big, round eyes, gently, with a thousand precautions, waiting for a kind of electric shock that would contract his skin, activate the ganglions that propelled him, and throw the rings of his body against one another like copper bracelets, with a faint tinkle, when once he had become subterranean, coiled, gelatinous -- yes, the one and only real, tenebrous earthworm.

And what to make of his name? Alexander Theroux in his masterfully discursive and obsessive meditations on the primary colors, writes that “the name Adam, the first man, means, according to ancient Hebrew tradition, both ‘alive’ and ‘red’…” But here, in The Interrogation, Le Clézio’s “first man” wants to reverse the order of creation. He is a creator-destroyer like the Hindu god Shiva. At times he sounds like John of Patmos’s Book of Revelation, a book, incidentally, that Thomas Jefferson regarded as “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherencies of our own nightly dreams.” Here Adam envisions a grand devolution, where “the earth has turned into a sort of chaos,” where the sun and sky have fallen, where the ground is

suddenly melting, boiling, or flowing beneath his feet. The trees grew excited and gave off poisonous vapours. The sea began to swell, devoured the narrow grey strip of beach and then rose, rose to attack the hill, to drown him, to numb him, to swallow him up in its dirty waves. He could feel the fossilized monsters coming to birth somewhere, prowling round the villa, the joints of their huge feet cracking. His fear grew, invincible, imagination and frenzy could not be checked; even human beings become hostile, barbarous, their limbs sprouted wool, their heads shrank, and they advanced in serried ranks over the countryside, cannibalistic, cowardly or ferocious. The moths flung themselves on him, biting him with their mandibles, wrapping him in the silky veil of their hairy wings. From the pools there rose an armoured nation of parasites or shrimps, of abrupt, mysterious crustaceans, hungering to tear off shreds of his flesh. The beaches were covered with strange creatures who had come there, accompanied by their young, to await no one knew what; animals prowled along the roads, growling and squealing, curious parti-coloured animals whose shells glistened in the sunshine. Everything was suddenly in motion, with an intense, intestinal, concentrated life, heavy and incongruous as a kind of submarine vegetation. While this was going on he drew back into his corner, ready to spring out and defend himself pending the final assault that would leave him the prey of these creatures…

In Akira Kurosawa’s film I Live in Fear, Kiichi Nakajima, an aging industrialist (played by the incomparable Toshiro Mifune), believes that an atomic war is inevitable and wishes to escape it by uprooting his family to South America. Nakajima is unable to accept that nobody, including his own family, is able to see the danger. After the courts declare him mentally incompetent, he becomes insane and ends up in an asylum. Apparently the film was a flop in Japan and wasn’t released until the sixties in Europe. Reading The Interrogation, I wondered if Kiichi Nakajima’s paranoia served Le Clézio as a model for his protagonist who’s also certain that some great cataclysm is about to consume everything. Adam too fears that a “strange accident” will “flatten him on the ground and encrust him, once more among the living, in the bloody pulp of his own flesh, his shattered bones, his open mouth, and blind eyes.” Samuel Fuller’s Pick Up in South Street, a film Adam wants to see, was released in 1953. So like I Live in Fear the time in which The Interrogation is set is only ten years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This would help to explain Adam’s fear of some fiery apocalypse. Perhaps not so farfetched an influence, however, are films by French New Wave directors like Truffaut, Godard, and Resnais with their improvisatory, documentary approach, slow slides into tedium, their reveling in banalities, authorial intrusions, ironic rejection of narrative form, and also for their predilection for existentialist themes of loss, alienation, meaninglessness, dread, absurdity, etc.

Throughout the novel, Adam is likened to animals, the kind “that make a canny retreat into some refuge and watch stealthily for danger, the kind that creeps along the ground and hides in its skin, blending right into it.” At one point, during an excursion to a zoo, we learn of his mission to see things more deeply. At the zoo, Adam comes to the cage of a panther named Rama. He waves to it and “the beast, mad with fury, tore the ground with her claws.” Here we find Adam once again confronted by darkness (In Sanskrit, Rāmá is used either as an adjective meaning “dark” or “black,” or a noun meaning “darkness”). Adam’s paralyzed by fear of this “devilish brute.” Slowly shaking out of it, he walks away only to fall into one of his reveries, sinking “into a kind of motionless ecstasy… an unbearable rigidity” where “nothing is apparent; nothing remains but silence, fixity, eternity; for all is slow, slow, slow.”

Kafka’s shadow upon Le Clézio is evident when Adam forgets “that he was Adam,” that “he was turning into a white rat, but by a strange kind of metamorphosis, he still kept his own body… he was turning into a white rat because he was thinking of himself as one; because he had formed an idea of the danger that the human race represented for this breed of small, myopic, delicate animals. He knew that he could squeak, run, gnaw, stare with his two little round, blue, brave, lidless eyes; but it would all be in vain.” In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa is unable to free himself from the paralysis of his transformation. Adam, on the other hand, is much more fluid in his shape-shifting, and has much more control. But like his incredible vision, this ability does not result in Adam’s freedom and self-realization.

The centerpiece of the novel is Adam’s total breakdown in public that veers “between fanatical raving and wedding-breakfast oratory.” It’s a feverish aria where Adam expresses his views of universal connectivity, the capacity of humanity to create, our monstrous connection to technology, etc. It’s filled with absurd incongruities, bizarre associations, cryptic warnings, and the like. When asked by someone in the crowd whether he is a prophet, Adam doesn’t answer but turns “back to the mysterious enigmas of his embryonic language, to his desperate isolation…” His soliloquy explodes into sentence fragments and degenerates into complete incoherence. Fatigued, his head “seemed to hover among the listeners like somebody else’s head; instead of degrading it, despair carved it into an effigy,” where it felt like “everything was coming and going confusedly, in jerks, with the sound and colours of a riot.”

The question, posed at the beginning of the novel, of whether Adam had escaped a lunatic asylum is left unclear, but following this public meltdown he’s arrested and finally sent to one. In the last section, a coda, if you will, we find Adam interrogated by a group of psychiatry students. Adam’s rambling discourse, his erudition, his logorrhea is confusing and often hilarious. Le Clézio really soars here. Adam rambles along about Manilius’s Celestial Houses, the Tetragrammaton, the Star of David, Zen, Christian mysticism and esotericism, psychology, philosophy, religion, and makes passing references to Jan van Ruysbroek, Occam’s razor, dialectics, rhetoric, even plane geometry and architecture. We still find him, however, plagued with visions, like the one of his nurse, clinging “to the eyeballs like a twining root, multiplying her faces to infinity.”

Adam virtually eats the students alive, easily reading them, as Le Clézio describes, like a postcard. Although diagnosed with systematized paranoid delirium, megalomania, micromania, persecution mania, theory of justified irresponsibility, sexual deviations, and mental confusion, Adam succeeds in persuading even the star pupil that he isn’t insane.

Le Clézio, in his incredibly unnecessary foreword, attempts to sidestep criticism by considering The Interrogation “too mannered and wordy; its style ranges from para-realistic dialogue to pedantically aphoristic bombast.” This self-consciousness makes me wonder if Le Clézio was simply using Adam as a mouthpiece when he had him say:

I know we’re more or less literary, but it won’t do any longer. I’m really tired of -- It’s bound to happen, because one reads too much. One feels obliged to put everything forward in a perfect form. One always feels called upon to illustrate the abstract idea by an example of the latest craze, rather fashionable, indecent if possible, and above all -- and above all, quite unconnected with the question. Good Lord, how phoney it all is! It stinks of fake lyricism, memories, childhood, psychoanalysis, the springtime of life and the history of the Christian religion.

Le Clézio wishes for The Interrogation to be taken as a “complete fiction, interesting only in so far as it produces a kind of repercussion (however briefly) on the reader’s mind.” Does he succeed? If by “complete fiction” he means a kind of metafictional narrative that contradicts convention, confounds expectation, a fiction that distances the reader from the text, a text that draws attention to itself as a construction, then the answer is yes. But The Interrogation is much more than that. The “repercussions” on the mind are much stronger than that. Le Clézio’s juggling of the story’s action with beautifully rendered prose, fantastic imagery, acerbic dialogue, and especially its excavation of a deranged mind, distinguishes his novel not only as an embryonic curiosity of an elder craftsman of literature, but a fascinating work in itself.

The Interrogation  by J.M.G. Le Clézio, translated by Daphne Woodward
Simon & Schuster
ISBN-13: 978-1439149188
256 pages