Interview with Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
To celebrate the official pub date for Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s Island of Point Nemo, you’ll find an interview below between the translator, Hannah Chute (who received a Banff Translation Fellowship to work on this book) and the author himself. You can get the book now either through our website, or from better bookstores everywhere.
A stolen diamond and three right feet, wearing shoes of a non-existent brand, that wash ashore in Scotland set into motion the first plot of Island of Point Nemo, a rollicking Jules Verne-like adventure narrative that crosses continents and oceans, involves multilingual codes, a world-famous villain, and three eccentrically loopy detectives.
Running parallel is the story of B@bil Books, an e-reader factory in France filled with its own set of colorful characters, including the impotent Dieumercie and his randy wife, who will stop at nothing—including a suspect ritual involving bees—to fix his “problem,” and their abusive boss Wang-li Wong, obsessed with carrier pigeons and spying on his employees.
With the humor of a Jasper Fforde novel, and the structure of a Haruki Murakami one, Island of Point Nemo is a literary puzzle and grand testament to the power of storytelling—even in our digital age.
Hannah Chute: I’d like to begin at the beginning. Island of Point Nemo has so many interweaving elements, so I have been wondering what the actual inception of the novel was. Did you begin with B@bil Books? With the Ananke diamond and the steampunk universe of Martial Canterel and Shylock Holmes?
Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès I generally spend a long time preparing a very detailed plan before starting to write, so the weaving of the stories was set well in advance. This book has a spiral structure where the chapters are connected vertically and linearly, like the chambers of a nautilus shell. In the same way, I spent several months doing a kind of preliminary “casting,” drawing many of my characters and some important settings, to develop a sort of graphic “story board” whose pages–hanging on lines stretched out in several rows–ended up covering almost all of the walls of the place where I live.
HC: And how did you write the book? Did you write the chapters in the order they’re in now, or did you jump around following the storylines or different characters?
JB: After this I started writing my chapters in the order in which they were published. As early as Chapter VII, though, I realized that I needed the story of the Ananke diamond in its entirety in order to work out the connections and capillary action that I wanted to set up with the world of B@bil Books. So from that point I wrote all the adventures of Martial Canterel and his crew before returning to Arnaud Méneste and the e-reader assembly plant.
HC: Several of the more far-fetched-sounding plot points in the Ananke storyline are actually drawn from real-life inspirations. I’m thinking, for example, of the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disorder, the Skoptsy religious sect, Point Nemo itself, etc. Did you go out looking to incorporate elements like these that would perhaps sound made-up to readers who are not already familiar with them?
JB: Yes, this is the very game of fiction. Fantasy can only work using elements that are drawn, at least in part, from reality. It is the choosing and sticking-together of these elements that makes it possible to invent new stories. As in all my novels, every detail is “true”—even the most improbable depravities and the elephant catapults! It is the assembling of these details that is “fictitious” and which forms the universe of my novel.
HC: The interplay of technology and reading is strongly present in both the B@bil Books world and the Ananke world within the novel. Within the steampunk universe of Canterel and Holmes, it gradually becomes clear that physical, printed books are a thing of the past and that they have been entirely replaced by ebooks. And the factory in the “real” world is of course an e-reader factory. Its management doesn’t even seem to think that the books on these e-readers will ever be read. As Monsieur Wang believes, “The digital library was just a modern variation on the sin of pride, the sin of upstarts anxious to show of their prosperity, surrounding themselves with flashy books—even just empty bindings—that they had never read and never would read.”
Is this meant to be an omen of how a future like the one shown in the Ananke storyline could come to be? What effect do you think technology has on our desire to read and our reading itself?
JB: Island of Point Nemo is a double dystopia. One of the goals of this type of fiction is to warn the reader by pushing to their limits the dangerous aspects of a society devoted to monopolization and consumption. Same with religious and ideological dogmas. The question is how to renew our way of living in the world in such a way that man no longer sees himself as “master and possessor of nature.”
Technology, as we know, has no sign; it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It all depends on the values that govern its use. Focusing on spectacle–the consumption of televised or digital images at the expense of reading time–creates a mental passivity in our method of accessing information. It is not impossible that this laziness gradually alienates us from the effort that reading requires, and eventually leads to a profound transformation of our relationship with writing.
As for books themselves, I agree with Jean-Claude Carrière and Umberto Eco: “The book is like the spoon, the hammer, the wheel, or scissors. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”
HC: Arnaud Méneste draws on newspaper clippings and the literature that he and his now-comatose wife have read, trying to put together a novel so great that it will wake her from her long slumber. How much does your writing philosophy resemble Méneste’s? Do you believe literature can save people?
JB: Literature–some books, in any case–has the power to change our view of the world, and thus to interact with reality. This is the power of imagination, of creative freedom. To say something is always to start to make it exist a little. It is in this sense also that “every name is an omen.”
As I recount in this novel, it was through reading Les Misérables and The Count of Monte Cristo that the cigar makers of Cuba were convinced of the merits of rising up against social injustice, to the point of engaging in revolution. I do not believe in any “salvation,” but rather in this shift in focus that allows our lives to move in a new direction at one point or another.
HC: And is reality, as Méneste says, “a subservient mirror of what has already happened in novels”? When he reads the chapters of his novel to the factory workers at B@bil Books, is he changing them, or are they changing him?
JB: I do not think there is a reality apart from the perception we have of it. That is to say, reality and fiction are inextricably intertwined in my mind, to the point that reality can sometimes be considered a lesser variant or bad copy of fiction. When Méneste calls on our memory as readers to construct his novel, he unconsciously creates an extremely powerful reaction, an alchemy capable of upsetting the world order, connecting parallel universes, inverting reality and fiction. It is this transmutation that is at work in both him and his wife, as well as in all those who attend his readings.
HC: I ran across a reader review of the book online in which the reader complained that the novel would have been great for children if it weren’t for all the sex and violence. In the U.S. in particular, I think there is a certain idea that adventure stories (such as those written by Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo) are just “fun” stories for kids, and that they can’t be serious literature. Why do you think this trope exists? Is there a difference between “real” literature and “popular” literature?
JB: There are different literary genres—popular novels, detective fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc.—and none of them is “inferior” to the others, but only those texts that do not leave the reader unscathed belong to literature. I make no distinction between these books, whatever their genre, and others. And these others can be captivating and successful, and give me great pleasure in reading them, but I know as I read them that they are “outside of literature.”
“The supreme effort of the writer as of the artist,” writes Marcel Proust, “is partially to lift the veil of ugliness and insignificance which leaves us without curiosity about the world. So he tells us [. . .] look! Learn to see! And at that moment he disappears.”
A book belongs to literature when it succeeds in this unveiling that makes visible, with reverence and the approximation of chiaroscuro, the complex beauty of things. Through an original perspective of reality (not its servile representation), the “literary” work leaves me by myself, free to measure my being against this unexpected opening. My view of the world is thus enlarged by the vision of another, and I am enriched, because the world is enriched by my reading.
The literary event, when it occurs, flows through novels, aphorisms, poems, essays, and any other form of writing. I have not gained more knowledge from reading On the Genealogy of Morality, De rerum natura, or A Short History of Decay than from Gargantua, Anabasis, Last Exit to Brooklyn, or The Magic Mountain: with each I learned to see better for myself; each of these readings changed my worldview, and so helped me become what I am.
HC: There are monsters of many kinds in Island of Point Nemo. The monsters in the Ananke storyline are more viscerally horrifying (for example, the deep-sea creatures that the crew of the ship Black Orpheus encounters as they near Point Nemo, or worse the foul murderer the Noh Straddler). But thinking of the sex-starved and desperate Carmen Bonacieux, the cold and cruel Monsieur Wang, or the pitiful but grotesque Marthe, some of the characters in the “real world” seem more monstrous still. What makes a real monster?
JB: According to its Latin etymology, monstrosity is a wonder, an aberration that one points at, unable to find the right words to name it. A departure from the norm that makes us aware of a border between “normal” and “abnormal.” This frontier has kept evolving over the centuries, and fortunately physical deformities are no longer exhibited at fairs or Barnum circuses. Moral deformities, however, continue to cause problems. What terrifies us today is less the disgrace of the body than that of the spirit. As Gerard Amiel points out, “man’s lack of spirit and his total plasticity open him to all possibilities, including the worst. Anyone, under these conditions, can become a tormentor. What fascinates us today is no longer the exceptional nature of monstrosity, but its banality. The humanization of monsters gradually forces us to recognize the monstrosity of man. We tried to drive the monstrous to the edges of humanity, then to eliminate it, but it found refuge in us.”
My interest in monsters is part of this questioning of human nature. The “real monsters” are individuals who for one reason or another—pathological disorder, extreme faith in a divinity or ideology, voluntary conditioning, etc.—no longer possess the minimum of empathy with others that would prevent them from being torturers, or just from deliberately harming others. “Winter is coming,” the refrain of Games of Thrones, refers to this internal monstrosity that constantly threatens us, more than an external danger that we should protect ourselves from.
HC: The characters of Island of Point Nemo range all across the globe, as you yourself have done during your life. Considering all the traveling you’ve done and the number of places you’ve lived, do you consider yourself a French writer? An international writer?
JB: By my native language, I am obviously a French writer, but this does not prevent me from feeling connected to the rest of the planet. Hence the importance, to me, of this American translation.
HC: What is next for you? You’ve mentioned that you are planning to write a series of novels to expand on themes from the stories in your collection La Mémoire de riz. Is your latest novel, Dans l’épaisseur de la chair, a part of this?
JB: The twenty-two short stories of La Mémoire de riz play with the symbolism of the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles. Each of my books since then has been, to some degree, part of this initial context. This is a way of considering and exploring the general coherence that I perceive in my work, without clearly distinguishing it. Dans l’épaisseur de la chair follows this constraint: it contains several characters already present in La Mémoire de riz. I am unlikely to succeed, but ideally—for aesthetic reasons—I would like to leave behind twenty-two volumes of a novelistic mosaic from which perhaps would emerge something like a single compendium of the world.