When Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2008, he unintendedly found himself embroiled in a controversy. A month before the prize was announced, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the prize jury, opined that the United States was "too isolated, too insular" when it came to literature. That "ignorance," Engdahl said, exists in part because American publishers "don't translate enough" [foreign literature]. So, when Le Clezo, a writer virtually unknown in America (or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world) won the Nobel a month later, it was interpreted, depending on one’s view, as further proof (if needed) of the Nobel committee’s anti-American bias, or further evidence (if needed) of the American insularity. However, to be fair to the Americans, the reaction of many in the English speaking world when the prize was announced was: Jean-Marie who?
An added bonus of the Nobel Prize is it is a great fillip to the sales of the winner’s work. For example, when the octogenarian Doris Lessing won the award a year before Le Clezio, many of her books, long since out of print, enjoyed, for a few weeks, prominent spots in the High Street bookshops. Le Clezio, a widely travelled man—he spent long periods with an Indian tribe in Panama—has written over 40 books, including children’s books. Some of these have been translated into English, and, needless to say, were out of print of years before he won the Nobel.
‘Le procès-verbal’ was the first published novel of Le Clezio, in 1963, when he was twenty-four. It won the Prix Renaudot. Paris Express to declared that Le Cleizo was the literary revelation of the year. The novel was translated into English under the title The Interrogation, which is a bit of a misnomer; the original French title refers to the written report of an accident or of some important happening.
The protagonist of The Interrogation is a young man named Adam Pollo, who is not sure whether he has just left the army or a mental home. It transpires later in the novel that he has run away from his family (for reasons that are never made clear). It seems that Adam wants to be away not just from his family, but also from humanity; he has had enough of civilization. He lives in an empty house—its owners have probably gone away for summer holidays— on the top of a hill, near a beach. He lolls about whole day on a deck-chair near a window, smokes cigarettes, drinks beer, and spends his time in deep introspection. When he is not sitting, for all outward appearance, catatonic, in his deck chair, Adam writes cryptic observations and enigmatic letters in an exercise book full of yellowed pages. His letters are written to a woman named Michele who he thinks is his girl-friend but is not sure. He is also not sure whether he has raped her or not. Occasionally Adam saunters into the nearby town. One day he visits the local zoo where he annoys a panther named Rama. The panther snarls at him (which you’d expect a wild beast to do if you annoy it) and Adam retreats, paralyzed with fear by the ‘devilish brute’. It all ends, sadly but predictably, with a lengthy public oration—full of strange metaphors, vaguely menacing prophesies, weird logics, strange associations, loosening of associations, disintegrating sentences—which leaves the reader praying for the swift arrival of the local mental health team.
If you are struggling to make sense of any of the above, then I apologize. My (feeble) defence is that I struggled to make sense of what was going on in the novel as well. That is because I think Adam—how should I put this delicately?—if he is not entirely out of his mind, he is not fully within it either. He might have some contact with reality, but the connection is weak. As you read this strange novel you become increasingly convinced that it is the asylum and not army from which he has escaped.
If you keep this in mind at all times—that the protagonist is mentally unhinged—you might be better placed to make sense of what goes on in this novel. That’s not quite correct; it is near-impossible to make sense of the novel, because it is nonsense, really, but you might be able to appreciate why it is nonsense.
Adam Pollo is voluble narrator. He babbles on and on; about nothing in particular. (There is one whole chapter on a rat when Adam thinks he is turning into a white rat.) Quite what all of it is supposed to mean was not clear to this reader. The Interrogation can be viewed as an account of the disintegration of human mind (and an indirect endorsement of antipsychotic drugs). Adam Pollo, for reasons that are not clear has become increasingly cocooned in his fragmentary world, alienated not only from the society but also from reality (but then again there isn’t always a reason behind mental breakdown, I guess).
The prose of The Interrogation is manneristic and the narrative is self-consciously tortuous and conflated. (At least the English translation is. It is always difficult to comment on the prose in translated work, as so much depends on the quality of translation.)
In the decade after the publication of ‘Le procès-verbal’, Seven of Le Clezio’s increasingly experimental, esoteric (and difficult to read) novels were translated into English and were remaindered quicker than you can say the author’s name. By the time he announced that he had drastically changed his style, after the mid-seventies, with his breakthrough novel, Desert—his novels began to explore different themes from those of his earlier work and became more accessible—the English publishers, unfortunately, had lost interest in him. With the prestigious Nobel under his belt, one hopes that the Publishers’ interest will be rekindled and we shall be able to get hands on something more than the juvenilia of the Nobel Laureate.