Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The "Prehistories" of Jean Rouaud. 2. The Cave of Ghosts


The Guardian recently published a list of the “top ten historical novels” (http://bit.lyL1v7QU). One of the most encouraging things about it was the number of readers’ comments received, almost all of them complaining about omissions (Tolstoy is included, along with Robert Graves, Hilary Mantel and Andrew Miller, but not William Golding, Gore Vidal or Rosemary Sutcliff…): this hardly suggests a genre untouched by greatness. A common criticism, however, was its Anglophone bias (War and Peace and The Leopard were the only non-English choices).

Jean Rouaud’s Préhistoires is not a novel as such (indeed many of his works defy conventional classification), but it is a vision of the remote past conceived by one of Europe’s leading writers of fiction. It has never been translated into English in its entirety (I might turn my hand to this at some stage). In the second of his three vignettes, “La Caverne Fantome,” he explores the possible motivations of the people who created the world’s first paintings, in the caves of southern France and northern Spain, between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago.

“Even we can read signs in the sky. When rain is threatening, we smell it; we take in our laundry; if we are on a walk, we turn around. When the leaves change colour, we do not need a calendar to tell us that winter is on its way…So for people who spent all their time outdoors, it must have been second nature. They would have learned to read these signs that were before their eyes, to notice any change; a scent on the air; a hoarse cry in a thicket; a white disc around the moon; a haze on the horizon…This learning process cannot have been without its setbacks, nor can it have been without fear. How could such people fail to shudder beneath the onslaught of a storm in which a golden arrow, loosed from the heart of a black cloud, was able to split a tree and set a scrubland ablaze?

Unseen powers lurked behind each of these phenomena. Powers that had to be interpreted, placed in the context of a narrative, a coherent story that would make sense of these strange powers of nature. It was necessary to give a name to these creatures of the shadows, to give them a history, to understand their behaviour…

…They could expect few favours from the sky: snow, rain, hail, storms, it always sent something to fall on their heads. It made sense to protect themselves. Often they found refuge beneath the ground, within the earth that must have seemed to them like a mother…

…To placate the forces of the Earth, which was pregnant with all the things on which they depended: vegetables; fruits; animals; they sought a passage into its very womb, crawling through narrow passages until they reached a larger chamber. In this imagined womb, this cave of the treasures of life, they placed their hands against the wall…The imprints they left on those walls signify their rights of access; they are signs of a transmission of energy; a form of devotion…

…As they explored the veins and arteries of the great body of the Earth, orange flames flickering from the juniper wicks of the stone lamps they held in their hands, stone lamps in their hands, they saw shadows come to life on the walls…In a bulge of stone, like a baby’s foot pressing on the inside of a woman’s belly, they recognised the hoof of a bison; in a groove in the rock, they saw the neck of a horse; in a pebble of flint, protruding from the chalk, someone imagined the eyelid of an old mammoth; and then, in a depression in the rock, they created the image of a cow…And so it was done, and beautifully done: and one might have wondered who had contributed most to this process of reproduction: the Earth herself, or the masters of the caves. Because it really was a matter of reproduction, and they reproduced everything that, to their eyes, represented excellence: power, fertility, vivacity, endurance; whether in the bison, the bull, the horse or the mammoth…The human mastery of the world was beginning…

Image: Peter80.

…These silent acts, which populated the realm of shadows with a fabulous menagerie of spirit-beings; this trembling expression in the face of the mysteries of birth and death, was to continue on the hidden walls of caves for more than twenty thousand years.”[1]




[1] The translations here are my own.

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