TamTam Books News

Monday, July 04, 2005:

Another Review for Boris Vian's "Autumn in Peking":

From the Seattle Sinner:


May 2005
Autumn in Peking
Boris Vian, translated by Paul Knobloch
Tam Tam Books,
Reviewed by Jeremy M. Barker

From my freshman world lit. survey I can distinctly remember one session. The reading to be discussed was Franz Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS, a book that I had read at least three times during high school. As it turned out, so had the rest of the class, because, quite uncharacteristically, they had endless comments of a supposed “literary” nature to offer, all of which bore the unmistakable mark of high school English class mediocrity.

Admittedly, THE METAMORPHOSIS isn’t a simple book. From the first line, in which Gregor Samsa awakes to discover he has turned into a large bug, the novel presents precisely the sort of problem that students, inundated with the worst reductive tendencies school can shove down their throats, can’t quite make sense of. So, lacking any capacity for original thinking, they glibly repeat the banalities of their high school English teachers.

One person suggested that maybe Samsa’s transformation was a reference to the Holocaust, as the Nazis had referred to Jews as “vermin,” Unfortunately, Kafka had been dead for a couple decades by the time Hitler came to power. Another student claimed that the apartment the novel takes place in represented the Trinity, and that Samsa’s transformation had something to do with transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine actually turn into Christ’s flesh and blood upon touching one’s tongue). Kafka being a Jew, though, it seems a bit of stretch to claim his work is filled with Catholic dogma. A third student simply thought it was “Freudian,” as though that was, in itself, elucidating.

Of course, in reality Samsa’s transformation means nothing. It’s not a symbol, a metaphor, an allusion or thematic device. It’s just kind of funny, and, by interjecting a radical change into the Samsa household, allows for growth and change amongst Samsa’s family. But, led to believe that everything in “great literature” (or at least the books they make you read in school) has to be filled with “meaning,” my classmates simply couldn’t grasp that it was all an absurd joke. And what’s more, that it was supposed to be funny.

Reading Boris Vian’s AUTUMN IN PEKING, and desperately trying to figure out what I was going to write about it, that episode kept coming to mind. Vian, like Kafka, is full of strange absurdities. At the beginning of AUTUMN IN PEKING, Amadis Dudu can’t seem to catch his bus to work, the 975. There’s no room on the first one. The second one is over-full because of a fat woman. The third one runs him down. A bunch of priests with slings keep him off yet another, and so on.

Or there’s Dr. Petereater’s intern, who’s driven to murder by a sickly Louis XV chair that keeps farting and mocking him from its hospital bed. When he poisons it with strychnine, it stiffens back up and becomes a Louis XVI.

Such absurdities (or inanities if you’re some sort of tiresome bore who only loves Tolstoy) are par for the course when it comes to Vian. As noted in the reviews of both FOAM OF THE DAZE and HEARTSNATCHER which appeared in these pages over the last year and a half, Vian’s work is filled with a humorous sort of surrealism, and AUTUMN IN PEKING is no different. But fortunately, Vian seldom if ever uses them as tiresome philosophical metaphors (like, say, the abysmal contemporary novelist Jonathan Safran Foer). Instead, in the aggregate they serve to invite the reader into a strange, alien world that intersects—in classic Surrealist fashion—with our own in odd ways. As Vian said of his novel in the foreword to FOAM OF THE DAZE, “Strictly speaking, its material realization consists essentially of a projection of reality, in a biased and heater atmosphere, onto an irregularly undulating reference plane, resulting in some distortion.”

However, FOAM tends to cast a long shadow over the rest of Vian’s work. Most readers fall in love with Vian’s quirky love story, and see him as a hopeless romantic with a dark streak. Beauty and horror are thoroughly entwined. Chloe dies, after all, of a water lily growing in her lung.

But Vian is first and foremost dark. The quirk, the charm and the whimsy are mere accoutrements. Other novels—particularly those he wrote under the name “Vernon Sullivan,” like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVES—have plenty of violence and horror and none of the cute tidbits of FOAM. As I noted in my review of HEARTSNATCHER, Vian’s last novel, his work grew progressively darker over his short career.

AUTUMN IN PEKING, written between FOAM and HEARTSNATCHER, is somewhere between the two. Like FOAM, it’s primarily a love story, but unlike in FOAM, the love story is remarkably lacking in sentiment.

Amadis Dudu, after finally catching the 975, dozes off and awakes hours later to find himself cruising through the desert. The bus conductor, it turns out, won’t stop unless someone dings the bell or he runs out of gas. Dudu, however, finds his unexpected detour to the “Exopotamie” desert to be advantageous. An executive with the railroad company, he proceeds to begin a project to build a line through the desert for, more or less, no reason.

Back in the city, an engineer, none too eager for the job, is hired to design the rail line. He is overjoyed, then, to be run over by Anne, a (male) engineer driving erratically to impress his girlfriend Rochelle and his (also male) friend Angel.

The love triangle between Anne, Angel and Rochelle forms the backbone of the plot. Anne, a pretty-boy with a well-paying job, is a bit of a playboy to boot. Rochelle is, however, devoted to him, much to Angel’s chagrin.

As in FOAM, the young relationship eats away at Rochelle. She begins to fade away and shrivel up, consumed by her passion for Anne. But unlike FOAM, there’s none of the tepid sentimentalism regarding youthful romance. For Anne, the relationship is nothing but sex, quite the opposite of the lovesick Colin.

Although theirs is the central story, there are far more characters in AUTUMN IN PEKING. Vian, decidedly anti-clerical and atheistic, takes aim at the clergy in the form of Littlejohn, a Falstaffian cleric who recites dirty limericks as liturgy and imbibes a great deal of alcohol. Claude Leon, an office-worker who accidentally commits a murder à la Albert Camus’ THE STRANGER, becomes a re-born Catholic in prison and is sent by Littlejohn to be a hermit in the Exopotamian desert, with his penance to be having sex with a gorgeous Nubian princess. Then there’s Athanagore, an archaeologist looking for sarcophagi in the sands, his gay assistant (who vies with Dudu for the affections of the cook), and Copper, one of his students who spends much of the novel nude.

Trying to reduce Vian’s work is a painful task destined to failure. Like Kafka, Vian creates fantastically complex, surreal worlds in his fiction, which deserve to be savored rather than paraphrased by critics. Just over 50 years old, AUTUMN IN PEKING is still as fresh and hip as it was in Vian’s day, if not more so (he was, in many ways, ahead of his time). In a new translation from Tam Tam Books, an LA micropress that is struggling to make Vian available to American readers, AUTUMN IN PEKING is a book that, that should be required reading, and serves as an antidote to the tired, self-obsession and gimmicky cleverness of most hip contemporary fiction.

Tosh // 8:04 AM

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