|Boris Vian's AUTUMN IN PEKING|
(L'Automne ŕ Pékin)
ISBN 0-9662346-4-2 TamTam Books $18
Translated from the French by Paul Knobloch
Introduction by Marc Lapprand
(Text from the Tam Tam web site.)
Boris Vian was a jack of all trades - although unfortunately his name was Boris and "Boris of all trades" never took off as a turn of phrase. But nevertheless Vian was a great songwriter, playwright, singer, jazz critic and, of course novelist so it should have been Boris instead of Jack. Vian's 1947 novel Autumn in Peking (L'Automne ŕ Pékin) is perhaps Vian's most slapstick work, with an added amount of despair in its exotic recipe for a violent cocktail drink.
The story takes place in the imaginary desert called Exopotamie where all the leading characters take part in the building of a train station with tracks that go nowhere. Houses and buildings are destroyed to build this unnecessary structure - and in Vian's world waste not, make not.
In Alistair Rolls' pioneering study of Vian's novels, "The Flight of the Angels," he expresses that Exopotamie is a thinly disguised version of Paris, where after the war the city started changing its previous centuries of architecture to something more modern. Yes, something dull to take the place of what was exciting and mysterious.
Vian, in a mixture of great humor and unequal amount of disgust, introduces various 'eccentric' characters in this 'desert' adventure, such as Anne and Angel who are best friends; and Rochelle who is in love and sleeps with Anne, while Angel is madly in love with her.
Besides the trio there is also Doctor Mangemanche; the archeologist Athanagore Porphyroginite, his aide, Cuivre; and Pipo - all of them in a locality similar to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, where there is a tinge of darkness and anything is possible, except for happiness.
"Vian had so rich a career that people overlooked the fact that he was one of the most powerful writers to have appeared in France since the war" - Roger Shattuck
"Vian is one of the great iconoclasts, and more than that, one of the great comic iconoclasts." - J.K.L. Scott From Dreams to Despair: An Integrated Reading of the Novels of Boris Vian
L'Automne ŕ Pékin could well become one of the classics of a literature which, after having exhausted with a uniformly accelerated movement all the nuances of the sinister, from Romanticism to Naturalism and from Socialism to Mysticism, notes all of a sudden that it winds up in the desert of Exopotamie; a literature where one is finally permitted to laugh!" - Alain Robbe-Grillet
"Let the entire College pay attention to this work, let it uncover its riches: they are incalculable. A great lesson that Satrap Boris Vian gives us in L'Automne ŕ Pékin, using, moreover, a sacred language. L'Automne ŕ Pékin is one of the rare novels of our time which renders words their literal sense without suffering from the prejudice furnished by other possible means." - Noel Arnaud
In Boris Vian's world, I wrote here almost two years ago, mice persuade ambivalent cats to kill them because people they love have died. Stallions are crucified for their sins, and even bathroom fixtures have a life of their own. When one character puts Duke Ellington's ''The Mood to Be Wooed" on the phonograph, the O's on the record label cause the corners of the room to become round: Everything is transitional, becoming. I was reviewing a new translation of Vian's classic ''L'Ecume des jours." Now from the same publisher, Tam Tam Books, we have ''Autumn in Peking" (paperback, $18). The translation, stunning in itself, is by Paul Knobloch.
Ostensibly about the expedition to build a railway in the desert of Exopotamie, populated with engineers, randy priests and hermits, lovelorn couples, and a physician obsessed with model airplanes, as well as by buses that feed on catfish bones, typewriters that shiver when uncovered, and bedclothes that climb affectionately back into place when thrown back, even a chair that falls ill and must be hospitalized, this is the strangest of many strange Vian novels, like the others part science fiction, part love story, part surrealist farce -- and wholly, unforgettably readable. - James Sallis, Boston Globe (May 22, 2005)
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 ŕ 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 should be required reading, and serves as an antidote to the tired, self-obsession and gimmicky cleverness of most hip contemporary fiction. - Jeremy M. Barker, Seattle Sinner (May 2005)
Virtually unknown to the English-speaking world, Boris Vian's fiction remains highly popular in his native France. L'Automne ŕ Pékin is his fourth novel, and it was originally published in 1947. Contrary to what the title indicates, it takes place in an imaginary desert land called Exopotamie, where the sun emits black rays and an ill-matched collection of eccentric characters is trying to build a railroad. Whether this project is eventually accomplished is a matter of indifference to both the novel's characters and its narrator. As in his third novel Foam of the Daze (1947), Vian's absurdist humor highlights the pointless and demoralizing effects of modern work. It also serves as a tonal counterpoint to the tragic love triangle that comprises the other main plot thread. What's most characteristic of this novel are its nonsensical events, its unpredictable dialogues and interactions, and the random and careless acts of violence that its characters both suffer and commit. Neither shocking nor even darkly humorous, Vian's scenes of violence have a hilarious effect. It's not unusual for a character who has had his hip broken in five places to exclaim, "If you only knew how happy I am! . . ." Although these characters certainly feel pain, they don't seem to resent being poisoned, or getting maimed by uncooperative vehicles, or having their limbs sawn off. With a slapstick exuberance reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, this novel is much more fun to read than countless other modern experiments in narrative form. At its end, all that's left are ruined romances, several dead or vanished characters, and a renewed plan to start up the railroad project again with a different set of workers. It's all completely devoid of purpose, but Vian provides exactly the kind of pleasurable and surprising purposelessness that art is supposed to offer. - Thomas Hove, Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer 2005)