Literary UFO

December 16, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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?

1.e4 e5 é. F4 exf4 3. Fc4 d6 4. Cf3 Fg4 5. o-o Dd7 6. d4 g5 7. c3 Cc6 8. Da4 Fe7 9. b4 h5 10. b5 Cd8 11. Cbd2 Ch6 12. E5 Ce6 13. Fa3 Cf5 14. D5 Ceg7 15. Tfe1 Ce3 16. Bb3 Th6 17. exd6 cxd6 18. Ce4 Fxf3 19. gxf3 g4 20. b6 a6 21/ Fe2 Cgf5 22. Bd2 f6 23. c4 Rf7 24. Tac1 Tg8 25. Rhi h4 26. fxg4 Cg3+ 27. hxg3+ 28. Rg1 Tgh8 29. Ff3 Dxg4

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.

Ourednik_classe_sans_suiteRegular 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.

Or:

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.

Or

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.

I can almost imagine him winking at me! Or is he making fun of Milan Kundera?

Find another review here

  1. Brian Joseph
    December 16, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    The passages that you quoted are fantastic. This sounds humorous in twisted way. It also sounds very innovative which usually appeals to me.

    Like

    • December 17, 2012 at 10:02 pm

      He’s got books available in English. Leroy said in my previous post about Ourednik that he liked them.

      Like

  2. December 17, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Reading your review I wasn’t so sure this would be something for me but the quotes are great.
    When you described the protagonist I was immediately reminded of Dickens as well.

    Like

    • December 17, 2012 at 10:16 pm

      It’s huge fun. Dyk really reminded me of a cranky old man in a cartoon.

      Like

  3. December 17, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    I know you dislike experimental writing, but that seems to be how the novel opens. Why did you like it so much? It’s not sonmething I would have thought you’d enjoy

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    • December 17, 2012 at 10:32 pm

      I liked it so much because it’s funny, witty and that the writer doesn’t take himself too seriously.
      The first chapter makes sense but you need to wait a bit before understanding it.
      I’m sure this book could provoke a lot of discussion, just sharing the hints and leads and exchanging about references could take a while.

      Like

      • December 17, 2012 at 11:08 pm

        Any book that makes me laugh always has a little leeway on other features. I’ve enjoyed a couple by Queneau, btw (Zazie in the metro, for example) but didn’t care for others, so he is hit and miss for me (comparing to the current book)

        Like

        • December 17, 2012 at 11:13 pm

          I loved Zazie dans le métro. I wonder about the translation though.

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          • December 17, 2012 at 11:14 pm

            I have no answer for that, but it worked. The copy I had was translated by someone who has also translated a lot of the authro’s other work, and I think that’s a system that often works well

            Like

            • December 17, 2012 at 11:17 pm

              Sure, it’s better if the translator is very familiar with his work. They must be a little creative too.

              Like

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