Ad Acta by Patrick Ourednik 2011. French title: Classé sans suite Not translated into English, I think. So I translated all the quotes, sad attempt, I know.
I bought this little gem of a book upon the recommendation of a bookstore employee. He told me it was funny and he was right. I had a lot of fun reading this novel but I don’t know how to write about it; I don’t know if I lack the words or if I just don’t know where to start. By the first chapter, perhaps?
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This is the first chapter of the book. For me, it was cryptic and it intrigued me. Ad Acta is a literary UFO in an organized gallery of portraits while playing with literary genres. Our main character is grumpy and nasty Mr Viktor Dyk. He’s an elderly man, utterly cynical.
Dyk avait coutume de déclamer des sentences de son cru agrémentées de fausses références, le plus souvent bibliques. Il avait compris depuis longtemps que dans ce pays, la plus haute manifestation d’intelligence consiste à répéter ce que quelqu’un a déjà dit. Dyk was in the habit of declaiming sentences of his own making spiced up with faux references, most of the time biblical. He had understood a long time ago that in this country, the highest proof of intelligence was to repeat what someone else had already said.
He was a poor husband, a poor father. He’s not likeable at all. He’s the homonym of a famous Czech writer and committed a bad novel a long time ago. He likes that other people view him as a writer even if he has no illusion about his literary gift. When the book opens, we meet him in a park in Prague, where he’s sitting on a bench. He purposely gives wrong directions to a female student who asks for help to find her way. Dyk is nasty like an old man in a cartoon or like Scrooge maybe. As he discusses with other elderly people from the neighbourhood, he learns that Mrs Horak has just died. She was in a car accident. But the reader soon finds out that her death is suspect. Suicide or murder?
The novel alternates between the characters, more or less related to Dyk and Mrs Horak’s fate. And Ourednik starts playing with the codes of crime fiction.
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not keen on reading writers’ bios or checking their background or the context a book was written in. But here, after reading half of the book, I stopped and wondered. Wait, who is this writer? Why are there so many references to France? Does he live in France? Why do I feel like I’m in the middle of a Queneau-Perec experience? I looked for Ourednik on the Internet. Ah! He does live in Paris and he’s fond of the Oulipo movement. Mr Dyk writes under the pen name of Viktor Jary a book entitled La Vie devant soi. (Life before us) For this reader, it can only be a reference to La Vie devant soi by Romain Gary, which is btw the biggest literary mystification of the history of French literature. Is that a hint that Ad Acta is another literary mystification? It could be…
Ourednik has a witty prose and I loved his sense of humour and you can discover it in these short quotes:
Cher monsieur, vous avez bien un cerveau dans le crâne. C’est scientifiquement irréfutable. Trouvez-le. Dear Sir, you do have a brain in your skull. It’s scientific and undisputable. Find it.
Et voilà qu’un autre débarquait. Un gars comme une montagne, pétillant de santé, un de ces connards que même les maladies évitent. And right there, another one appeared. A guy as big as a mountain, bubbling with good health, one of those pricks that even illnesses avoid.
Monsieur Prazak avait raison au moins sur un point: l’idiotie humaine est la seule chose sur terre qui puisse donner une idée de l’infini. Mr Prazak was right at least on one point: human stupidity was the only thing on earth that could give one a fair understanding of the infinity.
Maybe I’m totally obsessed with Romain Gary (I see you nod enthusiastically at this assertion) but this last quote reminded me of this one in Adieu, Gary Cooper:
C’était pas croyable qu’il pût y avoir dans un seul mec tant de connerie. Il y avait de quoi nourrir tout un peuple. It was unbelievable that there could be so much stupidity in one man. There was enough to feed a whole people.
In addition to his sarcastic prose, Ourednik plays with the reader, leading them astray, addressing them directly on a facetious tone. The ending is puzzling. Literally a puzzle you’re not sure you put together the right way. Reading this is more than enjoyable; I chuckled and laughed and had fun trying to figure out all the hidden references. It’s a riddle.
Ourednik also portrays Prague and the Czech Republic after 1989. He points out the changes, the impact of capitalism, of consumerism. The city is a building site, foreign companies invest there and sometimes buildings, cemeteries from the past disappear. It’s also full of little remarks about the Czech character. But isn’t Ourednik making fun of us, avid readers, when he spreads these little pearls of wisdom through the book? After all, he says about Dyk:
A quoi il faut ajouter le handicap traditionnel des écrivains tchèques: ils prennent leurs livres au sérieux. Dyk perdit un temps fou à trouver l’idée directrice et à enchevêtrer les vérités discrètement morales qu’il convenait de faire entendre dans un roman.
And you need to add on the traditional handicap of the Czech writer: they take their books seriously. Dyk lost ages looking for the right leading idea and intertwining the discreetly moral truths that had to pervade in a novel.
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