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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Choir, île attachante, dernier piège d’Éric Chevillard

by Alain Nicolas

Falling, a Captivating Island, Is the Latest Trap Set by Éric Chevillard

Translated Tuesday 6 July 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Bill Scoble

Choir (literally to fall) by Éric Chevillard, Éditions de Minuit, 272 pages, 19 euro. The eponymous island is a terra incognita, where a choice of 112 words designate the colour grey. Possibly the best destination for a reading vacation.

To leave Falling was its inhabitants’ only ambition, their single project. And no wonder. Islands will be found in the farthest latitudes that have deserved the names of Desolation, or Disappointment, and Falling could be one of those. Its soil is a crust of guano that crumbles underfoot. Of all its fauna, the bug is a possible beauty queen: such is the scene and main character of Éric Chevillard’s novel.

Deliberately disappointing, this book will disappoint only those of his readers who have mistaken him for an obliging provider of narratives that carry the reader along mostly through the use of discrepancies and a certain form of author-reader complicity. Of course Falling is, as expected, an ironic text that breaks all the codes of the mysterious-island narrative and multiplies references and allusions just for the fun of it. And it is fun. But the author is not likely to settle long on familiar ground. Falling takes us farther and farther in the exploration of that unpleasant island without ever allowing us the comfort of a merely figurative reading. So, with the full swing of the season now well behind us, why not choose this island, the figment of one of our most inventive writers’ imagination, for a final chord and first vacation read?

So that dull inferno shall be our terrestrial sojourn. Forever maybe, for it is not so easy to leave the island. One isn’t quite sure even where to place it on the map, nor what seas surround it. In fact, Falling is only “possibly an island”. The feeling is that, being shaped like a ring, it should gird an inner sea and be girded by an outer sea, but it is actually difficult to tell these apart. Only one of Falling’s inhabitants has succeeded in getting away from it - a certain Ilinuk, the Polydactyl – the man with twelve toes. Dozens of years ago, Ilinuk built a rocket. Old Yoakam keeps repeating that Ilinuk will come back - he claims he was there when Ilinuk took off and has since become the official narrator of this legend, something even like the prophet of a saviour’s foretold return.

Some sceptics will poke fun at the legend and its messianic promises. So there is some form of social life on Falling after all. There are elections even. Just as the good citizens make a point of abstaining from voting, “the people’s representatives, in conformity with the people’s will, abstain from governing.” Since consensus inevitably generates dissent, one candidate has been known to promise to leave the island if he were elected. But by what means?

Chevillard gradually accustoms us to Falling, explores its mores, sketches its history. The island’s first inhabitants were air-crash survivors who got mired in its impalpable ground. Some kind of social life appeared, based on the refusal of perpetuation, and on the individual lapses of the common will - it, too, based on the savage exploitation of children that were born of human frailty, each of them “the unwanted effect of some wild fling due to alcohol, fatigue, or the cold”. Solidarity between inhabitants is not recommended: “first introductions are invariably followed by duels.” Other than this, incest and cannibalism are in, but only within reasonable limits - no oftener than once a week. There is no historical trajectory, no common destiny.

Time on Falling is a long wait for Ilinuk’s ship. Only the forms of its expression vary; it could be Yoakam’s epic narrative, or it could be supplications, threats, coaxing (“Come on, ducky, don’t keep us waiting”). Or simply clamour. No wonder if the local works of literature take on the author’s library. I hope I shall not be called a pedant if I mention that there are distinct echoes of Beckett’s Dépeupleur [1], Michaux’s Voyage en Grande Garabagne [2], or, in the odes to Ilinuk, of Saint-John Perse’s poetry.

Nothing ever takes place, and what little information can be picked up here and there is sometimes contradictory. Nothing is certain, neither the island’s history nor its fauna, nor even the nature of its soil. And yet the novel plods on, and the expected playful pirouette never comes. We remain mired in the guano while the author pushes further and further along all the possible and imaginable seams, until all the scene becomes saturated. This is not just clever: what is striking is the resistance of a universe created with very little means, the fruit of the sheer doggedness of the writing itself.

Chevillard is a master hand at this game. But he would not be such an important figure in contemporary literature if he were content with sheer virtuosity. Chevillard raises questions under the mask of irony: leave? change? wait? A meditation on the power of literature, Falling is also a paradigm for a world that is meant to make us reflect on social life, and “the good reasons to despair”. Or the bad reasons. For, as someone said, we must imagine Fall happy [3].

[11965, translated two years later under the following title: The Lost Ones

[2Ailleurs: Voyage en grande Garabagne, a poetic work published in 1936 (Elsewhere: A Trip to Grande garabagne)

[3possibly an allusion to the Christian notion of “felix culpa”, the sin that paradoxically called for redemption, made it possible (just as Judas’s act of felony made Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection possible.

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