12 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Kaija Straumanis on A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan, translated by Napoleon Jeffries, and out from Wakefield Press.

Based on the above paragraph and all the awesome that it contains, this book really shouldn’t need much more introduction: it’s a guide to adventuring, which is cool; the translator’s name is Napoleon, which, right on; it’s from Wakefield Press, one of my all-time favorite small presses. It is common practice at the Open Letter office that, when a new Wakefield review copy comes in the mail, Chad enters it into the “Translation Database” and then promptly hands the book over to me, at which I point squirrel it away and exclaim several things, including but not limited to “Shit yes,” “Mine,” “OmgomgWakefield,” and “I’M SQUIRRELING THIS AWAY.”

There are myriad reasons why I love Wakefield Press so much (they’re also the publisher behind the ENG translation of Fourier’s The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy), but I fell in love with their books after reading René Daumal’s Pataphysical Essays. Pataphysical Essays was a book I wish I had written a review on, but was never able to bring myself to do it—partially due to laziness, but mostly because I had no idea how to write about a book I loved so much but could only peripherally understand. Pataphysical Essays is one of the most insane things I’ve read in the past few years; it’s so scientifically non-scientific, and a joy to find so much humor and delight in something that confused me. It’s absurd, it’s profound. And boils pataphysics (and the world) down to the beautiful equation of:

To know x = to know (Everything – x)

ANYWAY. Back to adventuring. Even without mind-blowing mathematics my brain can stomach, Mac Orlan’s guide (originally commissioned by Blaise Cendrars), is a witty and tongue-in-cheek book/commentary that essentially outlines two types of adventurer—the active and the passive—which of the two is better, how he must function in order to be successful, and warnings for individuals “wishing to seek literature in life.” Here’s the beginning of the review:

For the rest, go here.

12 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs, or transport a secret package that turns out to be a member of a royal family? Though if you were to actually find yourself in those situations, chances are you’d pee an amoeba-shaped spot onto the front of your pants and wish you were anywhere but there. Basically, and for the most part, these types of scenarios and adventures are best left to the movies, books, and TV shows.

Pierre Mac Orlan says the same. Written in 1920, his A Handbook to the Perfect Adventurer is a dry humored and smart look at how fun it can be to be an “active” adventurer, but how, in the end, it’s probably best to be the “passive” adventurer—a manipulative character of sorts who encourages the active adventurer to go on ahead, and then sits in the safety of his home reading about adventures and imagining what they would be like (all the sexy parts of danger inclusive).

Because it’s been far too long since I’ve written a review, I’m going to apologize, and then just wing it. This is a book you can easily read in one night (if you skip the endnotes, and most of the introduction [sorry, Napoleon! Mac Orlan’s background is fascinating and the intro is well-written, but I just wanted to “GET TO THE WHALE!!” already]), and one that should make you chuckle out loud now and then, unless you don’t get dry humor, but maybe instead you’ll pick up on that WWI facet, in which case, man, those was rough times, hope you don’t get flashbacks.

With short chapters and the occasional list, the Handbook is an entertaining blend of reality and fiction with language that is both playful and essayistic. Mac Orlan doesn’t give you a moment of rest from his instructive train of thought, beginning the first lines of the book with:

It must be established as a law that adventure in itself does not exist. Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it . . .

Because an adventure is only an adventure once you label it as such. As kids we devour adventure stories, recreate them in our backyards or basements; as adults sadly, the majority of us drift away from the Gulliver’s Travels and 20,000 Leagues level of adventure stories because we are painfully aware of how juvenile it all is. True, we find the detective, the futuristic—but for some reason, the level those types of books are on seem acceptable and even plausible (re the futuristic part). I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Mac Orlan isn’t so much saying that our imaginations die completely as we grow older, but perhaps our willingness to believe in a fiction more real weakens, instead opting for stories that are either more probable (zombies), or things so ridiculous (sexy[?] half-squid, half-jungle cat space goddesses), that we don’t have to do a lot of mental footwork to get into it.

Mac Orlan goes on to stipulate that the only position he as the writer can advocate safely is that of the passive adventurer. The person reading adventure novels, the person sitting snugly at home only imagining what it would be like to sink into quicksand, instead of being like the active adventurer (whose main features are “total lack of imagination and sensitivity”), who brings shame to his family (they would cry tears of joy if he accidentally got lost at a fun-park, never to return), is always causing trouble, and who would be better off far, far away from the rest of us.

The emphasis and preference placed on the “passive” adventurer is great, even though this type of adventurer is initially said to be a parasite that can exist “only on the exploits of the active adventurer.” But there’s much to be said for living vicariously through the adventures—real or fictionalized—of others, particularly if it means not dying in some stupid way at the hands of a half-squid-half-jungle-cat queen. Mac Orlan states the childhood of the passive adventurer must be completely opposite of that which the active adventurer leads, and can be achieved by a number of characteristics, including:

A conscientious study of the humanities (texts to restore in the future).
Discretion in lying.
A cult of sensibility.
A complete absence of what is commonly called “moral sense.”
A respect for traditions and discipline.
A hatred of violent games, of sports in general—at least in practice. When it comes to theory, the passive adventurer must be a well-informed sportsman.
Literary eroticism (in practice: normal relations with women).
Able to write “whore” in twenty languages.
Knows how to play a few sailor songs on the accordion.

And, most importantly,

Has a gullible friend who can be made into an active adventurer.

Basically, passive adventurers are knowledgeable book-nerds who get all kinds of laid while their unnecessarily macho friends are out futilely battling a band of alligators that have evolved to walk, talk, and kidnap rich heiresses (who probably had it coming anyway). Though all this could, of course, be applied to actual, tangible life, Mac Orlan equates the passive adventurer to being “a more or less conscious novelist.” There it is, my friends. The passive adventurer is someone who has essentially retained a pure imagination, someone who is a creator, someone who knows adventure inside and out without having to get his hands dirty, while the active adventurer is all “WOO, PARTY!” and not a lot of thought process.

While I wouldn’t say Mac Orlan would support an entirely Proustian lifestyle, he clearly favors the passive to the active, though he does maintain that the active adventurer has his purpose. It’s a Möbius strip situation: the passive adventurer creates these adventure novels that are then read by future passive adventurers, who then evolve to become the next generation of passive adventurers, who then create . . . And in turn, those who don’t evolve to become passive adventurers and instead pick up their machetes/slingshots/wasp spray on their way to become the next active adventurer—those are the people who serve as subjects for their passive counterparts. Without one, the other can’t exist.

....
The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .

Read More >

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .

Read More >

Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .

Read More >

Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .

Read More >

The Little Horse
The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .

Read More >

Guys Like Me
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre
Reviewed by Peter Biello

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .

Read More >

Birth of a Bridge
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .

Read More >