I think I have found one of my favourite books here.
Terra Amata is a short novel by French Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. It follows the life of Chancelade from his birth to death, structured as a meditation on all the beauty found in the little things in life that one experiences, its energy focused on what is sensed and experienced in the immediate present. The book was written in the 60s, but the novel reads as though it was written yesterday; its style is – dare I say it – very hipster in its relentless drawn-out explorations of narrative form and its pervading use of meta and self-consciousness. However, I think this hipsteresque method of writing can be attributed to the daringness of French writing, shameless in its boundary-breaking and pushing the limits of what constitutes readability and truth of experience, rather than as a masturbatory exercise of stylistic pretentiousness.
Here are a couple of examples of what some of the more colourful chapters are about:
- The narratives of everything in the world
Le Clézio bombastically writes about how every living creature in the world has its own story. The Sun (or Kax) beats down on everything in the world, influencing the narratives of all the creatures in the world, each with its own name:
Like so many little men they each have their own identity. There’s one mosquito called Sepia, and another Darius, and another Ananda. There’s the blow-fly Truming. The cockroach Bryant. The caterpillar Alex. The flea Maria. The grasshopper Smythe, and the grasshopper Eole. There’s the bed-bug Marcelle. The tick Galapago. The mason-wasp Giordano. The black spider Sanka. The butterfly Dorian, the moth Kazan. There’s Anya the ladybird, Knock the praying mantis, Furious the fish and Go the cockchafer…
And so on. This early chapter is exemplary of Le Clézio’s larger-than-life celebration of the world, brought down humbly to describe and give time to its minutest details. Chancelade’s life is depicted with a certain delicacy and sensitivity to the world around him which I find refreshing.
- An entire chapter of gesticulation
Chancelade and Mina conduct an entire conversation through the medium of sign language, literally described for pages at a time
One chapter’s heading is “Saying Incomprehensible Words”. And they are literally incomprehensible. Here’s the final sentence of the chapter, for example:
Salussi-nom, galla parang matatitanek àruzu-ho tong-ak tangxaximenok Dogü
Yeah… Though parts of Le Clézio’s style borders on the overzealous and unreadable, I really enjoy it as a whole. Other chapters are more realist, but they are given that nuance of the hypersensual, depicting the intrinsically important and experiential aspects of human life in a way that celebrates what it means to be alive both as an individual and as an infinitesimal yet significant being in the universe. There is a poignancy and underlying yearning throughout Terra Amata that begs the reader to appreciate the beauty and shortness of life, to make the most of life while you still can, exemplified the best in the winter years of Chancelade’s life…
“Listen,” he said, and his voice began to quaver; “listen – I’m going to tell you while there’s still time … Live every second, don’t waste any of it. You’ll never have anything else, you’ll never – ” He hesitated a little: “You’ll never have another chance … Do everything … Don’t waste a minute, not even a second, hurry up, wake up … Tomorrow – tomorrow it’ll be you sitting here on this seat … It’s terrible, I – you…”
Chancelade’s voice broke, and at that moment the bus drew in along the pavement. The young woman jumped up and got in without a backward glance. Out of his dim eyes the boy Chancelade saw the green-painted mass clicking regularly … When the abyss finally closed and the bird dropped like a stone, there;d be no more noise, or words, or grotesque movements; only the featureless face and ageless unwrinkled skin of the world as it is.
Le Clézio’s oeuvre splits into two distinctive halves, according to the Internet. Terra Amata sits amongst his early novels which are similarly experimental and effervescent. I have read Le Clézio’s other works such as the macabre The Interrogation and the confusing and alienating The Flood, which are also fascinating and extraordinary reads. His later works apparently come out of the clouds a bit and are more realist and grounded in themes of childhood, exile and travelling, attracting a more popular Francophone following. For me, Terra Amata was a breathtaking and endlessly intriguing novel that made me rethink my life in relation to the rest of the world and it made me more aware of the sensual things in life that I often overlook. Interestingly, we never know what Chancelade does with his life in terms of employment or money-making, which implies a privileging of the free, everyday sensory things that really matter.
I would recommend Terra Amata highly, as well as Le Clézio’s other works. They are stylistically striking and, without doubt, thoroughly interesting and memorable reads.