Saturday, June 23, 2007

Six characters in search of an author

Shades of Borat. The quaint village pictured here is Lussaud, in Auvergne, France, and it's not as tranquil as it looks. Author Pierre Jourde found this out the hard way by writing a novel about the bucolic little hamlet that enraged its residents.

Jourde's novel described Lussaud as

a place where the gods were called "Alcohol, Winter, Shit and Solitude"; where having one tooth was a status symbol akin to wearing a monocle and where an old lady let dead dogs decay in her bed, tucking herself up beside them every night.

For some reason the villagers took umbrage at this sort of publicity:

In July 2005, when Jourde arrived with his family for a summer break, six villagers appeared outside his house shouting insults. Things turned violent, blows were exchanged and stones were thrown. Jourde's 15-month-old baby was slightly hurt and his mixed-race daughters were called "dirty Arabs". Jourde and his family locked themselves in their car and fled. They have never returned.

Five of the accused attackers have just appeared in court; the sixth, a minor, will be tried separately.

Pirandello, of course, was on a different track with his well-known play. His "sei personnaggi" were ideas struggling to be born into a dramatic narrative. In the instant case we are dealing with people turned into characters (and I intend the ambiguity), a transformation maintained in the ensuing media coverage.

The lines between "fiction" and "non-fiction" get blurred a lot in postmodern thinking--it's all écriture, right?--but I think it's possible to distinguish them. The latter voluntarily submits itself to empirical testing akin to that of science; the former (I'm referring here to novels) strives for an illusion of realism, but submits itself to those tests only to create the illusion. You don't want a realist tale of life in London where the Thames inexplicably flows uphill, or Buck House is located in Putney. Jourde's novel uses enough local accounts to enrage the inhabitants of Lussaud. We must assume, then, that his illusion was firmly and successfully

What do we see in our minds when we read these stories of what Karl Marx memorably called "the idiocy of rural life?" Village scenes out of Breughel, occasional mobs bearing pitchforks and torches, incest, adultery, grinding poverty and filth, but nice B-and-Bs for the tourists. Ah, that bracing country air, fresh fruit, scenery and a leisurely latte on a stone terrace....Lovely. We're going back.

Language is the prison-house from which there is no escape. Our being-with-others--our intersubjectivity--is linguistically mediated. We are all characters in other people's accounts, and even in our own. In this sense the fictive and non-fictive realms really do come together: no one's description of another person can be "true," and certainly never complete. The same applies to self-description: an autobiography is not the autobiographer, but a series of statements, a judicious selection, a narrative, above all a story.

L'affaire Lussaud is a cautionary tale. Our stories can cause injury because they do not jibe with our characters' accounts of themselves, or, on the other hand, because they do so too closely. But, more than that, we continue to resist the notion that we are characters. Jourde did not simply reveal what the villagers wanted to keep concealed, or caricature their way of life in an insulting fashion. He
imprisoned them in his text, transforming them into mere characters in their own eyes. I suspect it was that subversion of the very notion of the self, and not the unflattering secrets that he told, that led to his near-lynching.

No comments: