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Fiction: The Double Helix of Violence

Gérard Gavarry, Jane Kuntz, trans.
Hoppla! 1 2 3

In 2005 we saw the Paris suburbs lit afire by frustrated young people. Do such events start from little nothings, or are they explosions of major contradictions? A convenient narrative —about youth unemployment, pervasive racism, and systematic injustice—was told to satisfy us. Narrative puts curiosity to bed. Narrative imposes history, and history, as we know, is told by the victors. Gérard Gavarry wants to outdo the historians by telling the same untellable tale over and over, his retellings making certainty less infallible.

The Rashomon effect, applied to different subjectivities viewing the same event differently, is a lower-order case of uncertainty; in Hoppla! 1 2 3 Gavarry, as omniscient novelist, sees so much, so slowly, and from so many different angles that he brings into disrepute his godlike powers, while also radically disempowering the reader. Story becomes fluid as it wanders toward the same ending, all the charm (of fooling destiny) residing in the wandering itself.

The elements of the (individual?) tragedy—the rape and murder of his mother Bessie’s employer, the manager of the SUMABA grocery store, Madame Fenorolo, by the hip teenager Ti-Jus, while his friend, “the hunk with the comb,” remains passive—are embedded in changing yet unchanging screens of language. Gavarry tells the story three different times, in the language of tropical botany, cargo shipping, and the myth of the Centaur.

Words have indeterminable status. Ti-Jus and his friends repeat words in clumps of three or more—mumbled, unfinished words, bleeding into others. The thirst for differential vocabulary is insatiable. As Ti-Jus enters Madame Fenerolo’s apartment, he “wants…to hear stipe and pinnate repeated, then the beating of rain on stipes, and the whistling of wind through pinnate leaves.” He also “wants to hear wet sand and dry sand. He wants pallisade. He wants roof, detachable doors, detachable shutters, and, more, wants lobster trap, mat, basket, fan…” Later, Ti-Jus “initiates a group-wide laugh-fest, using words like light draught, headway, pilot boat, cuntline and coxswain.” Also, “words crossed his mind, like westerlies, like scuttling, like embark, like take on water.”

Vocabularies—which determine who gets blamed—don’t often intersect. Ti-Jus cannot own languages that don’t belong to him; the doors are closed. Do non-intersecting vocabularies determine the flow and reality of ordinary events? Leading up to the rape and murder, repeated in three different (but similar?) registers are these events: a Parisian traffic jam, a rainy day, Madame Fenerolo giving Bessie a ride home, Ti-Jus and his friends’ antics, some girls seeking (and repelling) attention from the wannabe hoodlums, Ti-Jus being lewd as his mother measures Madame Fenerolo to fix her torn outfit, and Madame Fenerolo seducing (or not?) Ti-Jus in her apartment when he delivers the outfit. Gavarry breaks down the speed of each of these unchanging components, without disembodying them from the central narrative.

We’re told that the smallest actions can have world-shattering consequences (the impetus for religion and political ideology). As Madame Fenorolo drives in the rain in her Opel, the radio confirms her rage: “You’re furious out there on the southbound!” She clicks off at furious. This makes all the difference: “Thus, the THIS in this made all the difference pertains not to the gesture itself, nor even to the acerbic abruptness of its execution, but to the fact that the manager had so fully and unreservedly embodied the meanness and viciousness of her gesture.” So “the THIS which the manager’s act had manifested defined in advance the actions, positions, and words to follow, and indeed her entire person, and by retroactively modifying the images that she had previously generated at the SUMABA, THIS devalued those marvels into vulgar fantasies…both inside and outside the Opel, the climate degenerated…” As THIS, Madame Fenerolo’s gesture, permeates the three languages, so does Ti-Jus’s gesture of Refusal: “Between the epigastrium and the pelvic region, in among the meanderings of our entrails, there germinates Refusal.” Madame Fenorolo and Ti-Jus: a clash of classes and cultures, or a consummation of the psychic meaning of THIS and REFUSAL? The Centaur is a whole entity, not split in two, once established in our minds (through the power of narrative, of course).

If we could alter the speed of perception, might we alter the possibility of violence? What if we could see each and every element that went into producing the event (individual or collective) to anticipate the meaning, both prospectively and retrospectively, of each tiny byte of time? Would such a crawl reveal that destiny announces its arrival at every pause? Would the aftermath lose all meaning (our greatest fear)? For Zola, biology was destiny. For Gavarry, destiny is biology. It’s a difference in scale, the tolerance of the viewing angle, which devastates ordinariness.


Anis Shivani


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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