Friday, September 07, 2012

To which a novice is initiated

“I do no read much, but I have never stopped re-reading Flaubert and Jules Verne, Roussel and  Kafka, Leiris and Queneau; I re-read the books I love and I love the books I re-read, and each time it is the same enjoyment, whether I re-read twenty pages, three chapters, or the whole book; an enjoyment of complicity, of collusion, or more especially, and, in addition, of having in the end found kin again”
(W, or The Memory of Childhood, Georges Perec)

Reading George Perec is like rekindling a kinship you savored once upon a time. You remind yourself of the rare moments of clarity, presence of warm, intelligent mind and the gentle camaraderie you felt all along. From Perec, who blended mathematics, reportage, linguistics, cognitive studies and Dewey into delectable fiction, you expect nothing short of objective and unforgettable insights, even if it is on his own orphaned childhood etched by the holocaust.

Perec explores his own unorganized and unyielding memories from childhood which he attempts to revisit in his latter life. In parallel to the autobiographic narrative, he invites us to the life in W, an allegorical nation with Olympic ideals where human spirit is systematically crushed and enterprise is thwarted by intent and design, while the onlookers, cheered on by petty officials among us bay for their blood. That he draws this blood curdling picture without a drop of malice or self-pity gives us a locus-standi to view the inner workings of inhuman machinery at its destructive best.

Then there is rumination on questions of writing itself. He is aware of the unending oscillation between an as-yet undiscovered language of sincerity and subterfuges of writing worried about shoring up own defenses. Perec sees the written words as blank, neutral, a sign of a once-and-for-all annihilation of the urge to say what was probably unsaid or unsayable. For he wants to rid himself of the scandal of silence, of his kinsmen and self, and in the process assert his own life as the one who lived amongst them.

Having escaped W, Gaspard Winckler (the alter ego of Perec) is confronted by Otto Apfelstahl who is on a quest to find a shipwrecked boy. Otto confirms that he has exhausted the last trace of the boy with Gaspard. Gaspard wonders whether his luck is any better than the boy’s. Perec suggests what’s out there for the novice from the champion of life’s user manual in a flourish:

How can you explain that what he (novice) is seeing is not anything horrific, not a nightmare, not something he will suddenly wake from, something he can rid his mind of? How can you explain that this is life, this is what there’ll be every day, this is what there is, and nothing else, that it’s pointless believing something else exists or pretend to believe in something else, that it’s not even worth your time trying to hide it, or to cloak it, it’s not even worth your time pretending to believe that there must be something behind it, or beneath it, or above it? That’s what there is, and that’s all. There are competitions every day, where you Win or Lose. You have to fight to live. There is no alternative. It is not possible to close your eyes to it, it is not possible to say no. There’s no recourse, no mercy, no salvation to be had from anyone. There’s not even any hope that time sort thing out. There’s this, there’s what you’ve seen, and now and again it will be less horrible that what you’ve seen. But wherever you turn your eyes, that’s what you’ll see, you will not see anything else, and that is the only thing that will turn out to be true”
(W, or The Memory of Childhood, Georges Perec)

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