[Archipelago; 2012]

Tr. from French by Alyson Waters

[Ed. Note: Due to an internal error, two reviewers were assigned Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times. As it turns out, each review offered a unique perspective on Chevillard’s novel, and so we’ve decided to publish both. You can find Elias Tezapsidis’s take here.]

Prehistoric Times, the fifth novel of French absurdist Eric Chevillard’s to be translated into English, is about a lot of things, ranging from the mundane — a man, a cave — to the profound: art, death, and the cosmic scope of the history of the universe. But the plot of Prehistoric Times is confusing and almost non-existent. The ideas of the novel are clear and ever-present, but behind these ideas the experience of reading is as confounding as it is beautifully surprising. Chevillard’s prose flows forward with its own internal velocity, spinning out webs of thought, rarely stopping for spatial description, and leaving the reader struggling to keep apace.

Over the course of the book, the nameless narrator shape-shifts imperceptibly from a hapless employee to an artist of epic, fatal ambition. An archeologist by profession, he has been recruited to take over the position of a certain deceased Boborikine, guarding and giving guided tours of the Pales Cave, which is filled with prehistoric paintings. We learn a few things about this narrator: that he injured himself in a fall; that those “on high” to whom he answers do not have very much faith in him; that his mother had soft dresses and a soft voice. The facts are random, and do not add up to a full characterization. The narrator is hardly more than a disembodied voice, full of opinions and aphorisms.

He pontificates on various bits of the physical world, from uniforms (“a uniform needs nobody except to make it stand, and one handful of bran is as good as any other to stuff a doll”), to meat (“I cut into the flesh of fat steaks bleeding with our blood, believe me or don’t, I’m not making anything up, I’m writing fiction”), to shoes (“We pass away more quickly than our shoes”). Whatever the object, the narrator’s thoughts always work their way around to one place: the essential inconsequence of his own existence. He is just another sack of bran, no different from a slab of meat, more disposable than a pair of shoes.

But the book is as much about the feeling of the sentences as their content. The novel’s narration maintains, throughout all of its 170 pages, the dream-like quality of a story about to start, a task about to begin, or a point about to be reached. The sentences never quite end. And Chevillard is explicit about his integration of content with form. The narrator admits at one point that he “would make a pathetic storyteller . . . concerned only with beginnings,” and that he must “delay as long as possible this fatal, inevitable, ineluctable, and terrifying outcome at the end of a sentence, on the edge of the void —conclude.”

But Prehistoric Times is not just about the inevitability of death. It is also about the potential permanence of art. Chevillard’s most careful, detailed, comprehensible physical description gives life to a painting of a headless woman, who “seems to defy the little sucking lips of infants, the small, frantic hands of men and their fever that is too short-lived to set her enormous body on fire.”

This woman constitutes the most visceral, human presence in the entirety of the book. The cave paintings that the narrator guards contain life, sex, and permanence, and art is held up as the only possible way to overcome the futility of humanity. It is the one path towards a place in the history of the universe. But even this grandest of sentiments is ultimately undercut.

Gradually we become aware of the narrator’s desire to fool fate and render himself immortal through art. This very slight and inscrutable story comes to a conspicuous close, with the narrator sealing himself forever in the cave in an attempt to keep out the fungi that might destroy paint. He hopes to make a work of art that will have “an afterlife of forty or fifty thousand years, beyond which I have no ambition.” He is concerned more than anything else with longevity.

In the end, the inherent profundity of this odd little book is simply a joke. The narrator’s grandiose suicide mission is another futile gesture that, in seeking maximum permanence, will end with death just the same. And what is fifty thousand years, really, in the context of the universe?

But the experience of reading Prehistoric Times is so diversionary and unpredictable, so frustratingly obtuse and at the same time effortlessly beautiful, that it is important not to fall too far into the conceptual underpinnings, however present they are. A book like Prehistoric Times invites interpretation, and asks to be read allegorically. But the question of what it means is easily answered, and the sea of sentences that constitute the novel are full of more tactile, experiential pleasures that deserve equal attention.

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