Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers ($16.95)
Eden, Eden, Eden ($13.95)
by Rod Smith
You think you've read them all—all the writers with powerfully wicked imaginations, that is. Maybe you caught the bug in high school: there you were in English class, slumped on your desk, cuffing The Ticket That Exploded like a Playboy inside a rented copy of Catcher in the Rye. Or maybe it started on an unusually cool and foggy Saturday morning in July, when you fished that grocery bag out of a dumpster and let your friend have all the stuff with pictures while you kept Blood and Guts in High School. Eventually you got to the point where Hubert Selby and Lautremont are old hat to you; Sade, simply clunky. You wonder why no one other than Bernard Noel has yet to try pulling Bataille's sword out of whatever it is he left it in. You're still waiting for The Story of P. In short, nothing on any page in the world fazes you. The above comparisons are here for one reason: if any of what you've read above strikes a chord, you've come to the right review. If not, avert your eyes and move to another piece without delay, for we are about to enter the most desolate, the most brutal, the most unabashedly depraved realm in the history of the printed word: the world of Pierre Guyotat. Here's a typical scene, both savage and poignant, from the "First Chant" of his deliciously debased work Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers:
—Buy me, buy me, or I will die torn to pieces, yesterday they seized me and sewed me inside the horsehair of a mattress, cutting a hole in the cloth at the place of my thighs and everyone could then fuck me choking inside the horsehair, eyes pricked by the sweat, and the cloth, around the hole, blackens and sticks to my belly; I can't see them, I recognize them only by their cocks. Set me free, I'll work for your living.
The guard strokes the hair, the temples, the slave's forehead, strokes, soothes the restless forehead, the quivering neck, his belly touches the belly still wet, the stain on the dress called "slave's stain," his wooden leg crushes the foot of the now silent slave, motionless and quivering against the guard. Originally published in 1967, Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers is one of two Guyotat titles published in translation by the reliably insurgent folks at Creation Books this year. The other is Eden, Eden, Eden, originally published in 1970 and banned in Guyotat's native France until 1981. Of the two, Tomb provides the easiest point of entry into Guyotat's realm by far; plotless for all intents and purposes, the novel at least provides a modicum of description cumulatively over time, and approaches conventional narrative a good deal more closely than Eden, Eden, Eden, a single sentence in which one action immediately follows another with absolutely no intervening description or reflection for 181 pages. Both of these editions contain useful introductions by Artaud scholar Stephen Barber which help situate Guyotat's "supremely resilient and innovative body of work" for English-language readers.
While Tomb conveys some notion of time's passage, albeit strangely, Eden's temporal perspective is completely exploded. Ostensibly the book presents the story of an increasingly degraded male prostitute, but its language is pared to bare essentials, each page different from the next only in the exact composition of the scenes and sentences upon it. Whether it's "Wazzag crouching alongside apprentice, licking cold sweat pearling on forehead, on navel" from early in the book or "vipers, in warm cavity of laterite covered by rustling almouz, copulating, striking jaws, horn, entwining" from near the end, Guytotat's torrentially presented lines and images are all but identical in tone and rhythm. In the preface to the book, Roland Barthes champions it as "a free text... outside all categories and yet of an importance beyond any doubt." Structural particulars and challenge factor aside, the novels have much in common. Each consists entirely of concatenated vignettes situated in a world constantly at war, inhabited only by masters, slaves, and beasts—basically a 150-proof version of the world around us. Each is about sex, death, cruelty, and little else, excepting the occasional glimpse of potential for transformation on a purely animal level. To some degree, personal experience inspires and informs both. Guyotat, born in 1940, has seen time on both sides of the gun—as a child during the Nazi occupation, as an occupier in the French army during the Algerian uprising. He's written and spoken extensively about the relationship between writing and masturbation, apparently a familiar combo for him in real life. He's been hospitalized in the midst of long writing binges during which he neither eats nor sleeps. Guyotat transforms writing (his) and reading (ours) into physical acts. He pitches, we catch, again and again—if we're up for it. Tomb for 500,00 Soldiers translator Romain Slocombe and Graham Fox, his Eden, Eden, Eden counterpart, have both demonstrated great courage simply by tackling these monstrous entities. The fact that each has successfully wrestled his monster to the ground and pinned it—wriggling, kicking, growling, and hissing, all simultaneously—only sweetens the deal. Despite Guyotat's obsession with death (or maybe because of it), each translation brims with raging life; each retains the sense and the savagery of the original, if not its exact rhythmic constituents. For Guyotat, those constituents are of paramount importance, albeit far more in his post-1970 work than in Tomb or Eden. By all reports, his more recent fiction, written in heavily phoneticized colloquial French with innumerable convolutions, seems all but untranslatable, meaning these two epic prose poems posing as novels might be all we Anglophones see of his work for a while. To paraphrase Martin Luther, it is no great matter. There's more than enough here to keep us busy.
Click here to purchase Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase Eden, Eden, Eden at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004