Let’s talk about Oulipo. It’s a French movement that includes authors and mathematicians who use constraints when creating literature. For example: writing an entire novel without using the letter “a”. Or using palindromes. Or starting every sentence with the same word or phrase. Or, my particular favorite, replacing every noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary (this constraint has its own name: N+7).
Italo Calvino was a member of Oulipo – which is why If On A Winters Night A Traveler is a book of only beginnings. As was Oskar Pastior, Duchamp and Georges Perec. I consider Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch Oulipian, but discovered he was not a member. That book, though, shares Oulipo’s fascination with puzzles – so it’s not surprising that Cortázar wrote it while living in Paris.
Hervé Le Tellier is a member. Though, in terms of constraints the one he used for Eléctrico W seems a bit weak. The novel follows the structure of Homer’s Odyssey. And while I’m by no means an expert, it does so in such a vague way that I couldn’t find the parallels.* Be that as it may – puzzles and games and Oulipo all put aside – Eléctrico W is an entertaining novel.
It was 1985, nearly twenty-seven years ago. At the time I didn’t feel like showing it to publishers. I did give it a title, though, and this morning, with the sun taking its time coming up, it is called Eléctrico W, the name of a tramline in Lisbon. But that has been a provisional title for so long.
This paragraph is added in because, according to the computer, the manuscript comprised 53,278 words. I wanted it to be a prime number. Out of some superstition. So I added an adjective here, and adverb there, I don’t even remember where. And this is where the notebook starts again.
In these opening paragraphs we are introduced to the narrator, a middle aged journalist named Vincent Balmer. He’s recently moved to Lisbon, leaving behind his life in Paris and an affair that had run its course. He’s kept his job, though. The French newspaper, which still employs him, has him cover the trial of a serial killer. He is partnered with a photojournalist, Antonio Flores, who he knows from the Paris office. The two men spend nine days together. One night Flores reveals to Vincent that he grew up in Lisbon… eventually telling the story of his star-crossed love for a girl called Duck. The story captures Vincent’s imagination (“imagination” being the key word) and he attempts to track down Duck with the vague idea of reuniting the pair. Eléctrico W is the story of Vincent’s quest over those nine days he and Flores are assigned to the murder trial.
Vincent’s voice is introspective. Sedate. He does not seem to be subject to emotional peaks or valleys – regardless of what he sometimes claims. While he describes himself as more conventionally handsome than Antonio Flores, he lacks that male version of “jolie laide” which makes the other man irresistable to women. In face, Vincent learns that Flores is currently sleeping with the woman who had broken up with him/Vincent in Paris. She, Irene, eventually joins the two men in Lisbon. Despite all of Vincent’s professed passion for Irene his attempt at revenge seems half-hearted at best. Based on my previous reading experience, Vincent is part of that long tradition of utterly charming but romantically (and otherwise) inept Frenchmen whom French authors seem to adore. A cross between Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and Gérard Depardieu.
Vincent also has a hobby. Interspersed throughout the book are short stories which he is translating, written by the fictional Portuguese author Jaime Montestrela. Montestrela who appears in many of Le Tellier’s books.
In the town of Chiannesi (Umbria, Italy), on Shrove Tuesday, it was customary for every inhabitant to swap minds with another, women played at being men, children being parents. This swap included animals, and mice could be seen toying cruelly with cats. The municipality brought a definitive end to this custom in 1819, when the swap between cows and flies led to a crisis.
A small step above flash-fiction, these relatively straight-forward tales (we’re told that Montestrela might have intended them as allegories, but as Vincent doesn’t seem too worried about what they represent why should we?) provide “air” between the denser, atmospheric prose that makes up most of the novel.
A cool breeze was blowing and I shivered in the shade of the cypress tree. Graves seen in sunshine are never entirely melancholy. There’s always a hint of life to distract the eye, a blade of grass glimmering, a carefree chaffinch pecking at the ground, a black beetle with heavy mandibles crawling over the gravel. And when graves have no story to tell, we don’t linger over them.
All the writing, as translated by Adriana Hunter, is stylistically elegant. As are the characters. Vincent, in particular, is a flawed but sympathetic protagonist. And Le Tellier’s plot nicely mirrors the tenets of the Oulipo movement. Just like an Oulipian work is more than what is superficially apparent (though Eléctrico W still functions very nicely at that level if you aren’t interesting in delving into it) so is there more to the story of Antonio and Duck than meets the eye. Early on Vincent tells us how at the end of their time together he looked at Antonio and “… no longer saw a thirty-year old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book.” He projects his own narrative onto these two people, much like Le Tellier has projected the structure of The Odyssey onto this book. It complicates things, but not in a bad way. It causes confusion and, at times, surprising reveals. I wouldn’t call Vincent an unreliable narrator, just a misguided one. And, to my mind, all the more interesting because of it.
Punlisher: Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 534 1
* While writing this review I began to think that it’s not the plot of The Odyssey that Le Tellier is following, but the actual physical structure – words, lines, letters, phrasing. This is purely guesswork on my part, though. I’ve found nothing to support it.