As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters and published by Archipelago Books
This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.
For sheer narrative inventiveness and luxuriant delight in the seductive power of fiction, you can do no better than pick up a book by Eric Chevillard. Chevillard is one of France’s most mercurial and impish contemporary writers. He has written more than twenty idiosyncratic books that push Big Questions to absurd extremes and his Prehistoric Times is an intellectual roller coaster and fun house mirror gallery in one.
The unnamed narrator, an archeologist by training, was “derailed” by a fall while excavating a cave with dozens of Paleolithic paintings. He has been demoted to guardian and guide in the site, a position he is as unsuited to fill as the uniform that goes with it, his predecessor having been much shorter and fatter. In his meandering monologue, the narrator justifies his delay in taking up his duties despite increasingly menacing threats of dismissal.
The narrator’s reflections swing from the abstract to the concrete and back again. Sometimes his progress is logical, sometimes associative, but the connective tissue, Chevillard’s antic, slightly off-kilter, acrobatic prose, virtuosically rendered into English by Alyson Waters, makes the web of his thoughts seem inevitable and coherent even at its most absurd.
The size of his uniform’s cap leads the narrator to meditate on the genesis of thought and to formulate a series of hypotheses about how the shape of the skull might affect the quality of the thinking done in it. Would thoughts develop more freely in a dome-shaped brainpan or would they get lost or confused? Alternatively, would a turnip-shaped skull engender sharper, more focused thoughts or simply constrict them? Then he segues to recollections of his childhood, to wondering whether Homo Sapiens had usurped the place of more intelligent ancestors, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, to man’s need for rituals, to speculation on the aesthetic ideas of troglodyte painters and how imagination changes man’s relation to world. He zigzags over a great deal of territory, assuring the reader that he is not wasting time, though by now the reader feels as if he has been led by the nose in random circles and U-turns.
There is indeed a method to his meandering. His ruminations have all been preparation for his grand ambition, to create a work of art that will endure, like his beloved cave paintings, outside of recorded history. In Chevillard’s hands, the novel of ideas is as exhilarating as a metaphysical fairground. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.
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