Monday, 23 April 2012

The "Prehistories" of Jean Rouaud. 1. "The Paleo-Circus."

Jean Rouaud (b.1952) is one of France’s finest living novelists. His first book, Les Champs d’Honneur (translated as Fields of Glory) won the Prix Goncourt in 1990, and his writing, evocative of the by-ways of the rural west of France, has been compared to that of Flaubert and Faulkner ( Most of his works, however, have never been translated into English, among them a small volume of three essays on prehistory entitled, simply, Prehistoires. Rouaud’s writing is deeply personal (Les Champs d’Honneur is part novel, part memoir) and, in focussing on the archaeology of western France (principally the Dordogne and Brittany), he is paying homage to his father, who was fascinated by painted caves and megaliths.

In the first of his essays, “The Palaeo-Circus,” Rouaud looks at the Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings of the Dordogne (among them Lascaux, Niaux, Peche-Merle, Le Roc aux Sorcières), a “litany of wonders…which leaves us speechless, as though turned to stone.[1]

He places these in the context of the hunter-gatherer societies which created them, focussing not only on the developing technology of the hunt, but also on the way in which it must have been represented, the evolution of storytelling, with the best storytellers not necessarily being the best hunters. He imagines a hunting “big-shot,”[2]…observing his biographer through the flames of a campfire, watching as he captivates the assembly, and feeling the irritation welling up within him…the sense that, somehow, the feat and its narrative are becoming confused…

He goes further, in imagining “…a little crippled man, prevented by his crooked legs from following the hunt, who remains in the camp and does his best to help the women…fetching firewood, fanning the flames and amusing the children.” This man starts to divine patterns in the clouds, a “celestial menagerie,” the form of a bison in a large cumulus. Later, as he listens to the words of the storyteller, “…he imagines a hand above the flames, glowing in the night, sketching out the skull and neck of a mammoth, and it was as if the animal had briefly emerged from the blaze before melting back into the darkness. When the illusion fled, he found himself repeating the same gesture, until he seemed to feel with his fingers the rough wool of its coat, to remake it again, and again, to experience, through his misshapen body, the heat of the animal, and even its triumphant force.” When he draws a troop of mammoths with his finger in the sand, the chief takes the little man to one side. “He flatters him. ‘You have been hiding your talents from us. We never imagined you capable of such a thing. What good was I, facing the most ferocious of animals, when you had them in your hand all along? Why don’t you join us? You could bear witness in your own way to all that happens in the hunt, for the benefit of those who stay in the camp.

(Picture by Carla Hufstedler)

It is difficult to imagine a comparable volume of essays being published by an Anglophone writer. Rightly or wrongly, publishers in the British Isles and North America seem to believe that their readers prefer fiction and non-fiction to be clearly demarcated and separate from one another. “The Palaeo-Circus” defies such categorisation: it is an essay, rather than a short story (it starts with a discussion of the evolution of the human brain; it does not have named characters; the “story” does not have a clearly defined beginning or end), but Rouaud uses the sensitivity and craft of the fiction writer to imagine the human dimensions of the remote past, just as William Golding does in The Inheritors, or Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in Reindeer Moon. A similar merging of fiction and non-fiction is seen in Les Champs d’Honneur: is it a novel (it is marketed as such) or a memoir of three generations of the author’s own family? Within the Anglophone publishing world, and within historical fiction specifically, recent years have seen a significant number of established non-fiction authors (Harry Sidebottom, Hallie Rubenhold, Alison Weir, Rebecca Stott) turning their hands to fiction. Perhaps they have discovered, as Rouaud has, that the very different craft of writing fiction allows them to reach into corners of the past that are not directly accessible to the historian or the archaeologist writing in their more traditional mode.

[1] All translations here are my own.
[2] “Le grand caid.” The word can mean, simply, “boss,” but is sometimes used in the more specific context of a gangster boss.

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