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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les diamants du réel dans le kaléidoscope de l’écriture

by Alain Nicolas

Diamonds of Reality in the Kaleidoscope of Claro’s Writing

Translated Saturday 29 September 2012, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Isabelle Métral

Accident, or Plot by the CIA? The affair of "The Curse’d Bread of Pont-Saint-Esprit" is the starting point of a novel proposing the substance LSD as key to an entire epoch.

Tous les diamonds du ciel All those Diamonds in the Sky, by Christophe Claro, Éditions Actes Sud, 248 pages, 20€.

"The Case of the Curse’d Bread", a great title for a novel, if the real events on which the story is based [1] had not taken on historical dimensions.
On the 16th of August, 1951, the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the province of the Gard, were victims of strange troubles. Hallucinations, over-excitement, incoherent expression and behavior. Seven inhabitants were to die, dozens were hospitalized, some in asylums. Very quickly, one began to speak of this epidemic as the last manifestation of what was known as ergot poisoning, or Saint Anthony’s Fire [2], ergotoxicosis, in scientific language. A fungus, the ergot of rye, can contaminate flour via one of its derivatives, lysergic diethyl amide acid, commonly known by its initials, LSD. It is at this point that fiction, in the pen of Claro, takes over.

Front stage, Antoine, the baker’s apprentice. A young man a prey to anxiety that far outstrips the vague questioning of a guilty adolescence. Antoine is a fervent Christian, with an original form of mysticism: he imagines himself capable of consuming a weight of communion wafers equivalent to that of Christ at the moment of his crucifixion, and he takes walks near the statue of the Virgin on stormy nights. He is the one who kneaded the curse’d oven-full of bread, and he will be the first victim. Under the sign of the acid, his destiny will cross that of Lucy, a young drug addict from New York, who has been forced to work for the CIA. The agency had launched, starting in 1950, Operation Bluebird, a program designed to test, then to disseminate, this substance upon which were based the most contradictory of hopes. Machiavellian plan or not, it became the key substance for the psychedelic years, until the Beatles, in the thick of the "Summer of Love", in 1967, baptized it "Lucy", and launched it in the sky with diamonds.

To unite Saint Antoine’s Fire with Lucy in the Sky was a fascinating and demanding task for a novelist. Claro did it, in his own way, deeply stirring up the imaginary of an entire epoch, all the while subtly bringing out with a fine touch the echoes and anticipations from one period to another. The young baker of the fifties and a down-and-out individual from Ashbury Heights were hardly destined to meet. For that a particular astral conjunction is necessary, and it is the year 1969 that the author chooses. Bypassing the overly expected choice of May 1968, he makes of 1969 the hub about which spins the epoch of which he intends to draw the portrait. The voyage in time starts with a visit to the Latin Quarter right in the middle of the "erotic year", when the themes converged that made up the spirit of the time. Sexual liberation, novel perceptions, but also the voyage to the moon, the rise of things nuclear, the massive arrival of world cuisine. "Paris 1969 is quite something, don’t you know? But have no illusions about it, because it is also, as you may have guessed, quite something else."

Bread, Sacral Food, and Vector of Madness

Every stage-setting has its other side. every paradise its hell, every liberation its ransom. To put it differently, as we now know, you cannot liberate everything at once. Tous les diamonds du ciel is not a sentimental and nostalgic bouquet, nor is it an essay on the evolution of mores. It is an itinerary, a trajectory through a century in which the places, the moments, the ideas, the achievements, send flesh and blood personages bouncing about like balls hit by flippers. The art of Claro, in a text in which he makes no show of virtuosity for its own sake, is to maintain coherence in this chaos, to put things in order while keeping taut the strands of motifs that one encounters time and time again, answering in echo from one chapter to another. Thus bread, the sacral food, becomes a vector of madness, the communion wafer is replaced by the square of blotting paper dipped in acid, the moon of the astronauts passes over the bridge of the Holy Ghost [3], the personage of the Virgin incarnates all the imaginable avatars in a universe where all ecstasies are equivalent. Mesmerising like Lucy"s eyes in the song, Claro’s prose is here the kaleidoscope.

[1Translator’s note: For further information concerning the event at Pont-Saint-Esprit, see the book by H.P. Albarelli Jr,
A TERRIBLE MISTAKE:
The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments
.

Claro acknowledges his debt to Albarelli’s 826-page study of CIA behavior-control research and the death of Frank Olson. "My novel would have been considerably more anemic without this background reading."

On pages 75-85, Claro writes about CIA operations concentrated at the army laboratories "Camp Detrick and Edgewood Arsenal", the army biological warfare center, and chemical warfare center, respectively. He speaks of operation PAPERCLIP, for recruiting Nazi scientific talent, of the work of Dr. H. Marshall Chadwell (chief of Division 19 of the National Defense Research Committee’s Office of Scientific Research and Development), of operations "BLUEBIRD" (Albarelli, page 28, on interrogation and hypnosis, for "making subjects sing like birds") and later, under the new codename ARTICHOKE, of the use of psychochemicals. ARTICHOKE, which was Allen Dulles’ favorite vegetable (Albarelli page 226), the code name for a committee of which Olsen was a member, and of an operation to establish "closed houses" in which one might observe the behavior of persons unknowingly consuming LSD. The use of prostitutes as lures in operation ARTICHOKE perhaps provides a clue concerning Claro’s choice of Lucy’s profession in the novel.

In 1953, Allen Dulles consolidated this research under the new code name MKULTRA. "We intend to investigate the development of a chemical material which causes a reversible non-toxic aberrant mental state the specific nature of which can be reasonably well-predicted for each individual. This material could potentially aid in discrediting individuals, eliciting information, and implanting suggestions and other forms of mental control." In addition to LSD, they should carry out "research and development of biological and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior". In 1975, William Colby launched an internal investigation into the activities of MKULTRA, with an eye to destruction of records (Albarelli, page 451), and President Ford established the "Commission of CIA Activities Within the United States" (page 464).

For literary purposes, the operatives of these projects
are smoothly molded into the mysterious (presumably fictitious) personage of Wenceslas Kroy.

Claro’s character Nathan Fuller, who jumps to his death from the tenth floor of the Hotel Statler (on page 81), has a career and fate parallel to that of biochemist Frank Olson, the subject of H.P. Albarelli’s book, A Terrible Mistake. Albarelli’s title is derived from Olson’s last words, as he lay on the sidewalk of Seventh Avenue, New York, having fallen from room 1018A of the Hotel Statler. These final words are repeated in Claro’s text, "J’ai commis une terrible erreur" (p83), in that his colleagues knew that he knew about the operation at Pont-Saint-Esprit, and that he might spill the beans.

[2mal des ardents

[3the meaning of the name of the town Pont-Saint-Esprit


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