On Vincent Balmer’s first of nine days spent in Lisbon with his friend Antonio, they shared an olive-colored taxi to Rossio Square. Antonio was a native of Lisbon returning home for the first time after years ten traveling the world as a documentary photographer. Vincent watched Antonio look out the taxi window and light a cigarette. Vincent was struck by the tableau:
“It felt as if time had taken a step to one side, a divergence as fine as a crack in the glaze on porcelain. Something unfamiliar has insinuated itself inside me. I can think of no other way of putting it: I no longer saw a thirty-year old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book.”
That night he sat down and described what he had seen, instantly deciding that it would be the beginning of a novel about Antonio entitled Eléctrico W.
Except that this is not the Eléctrico W that I read. The Eléctrico W that exists as a physical object in our world is a novel by French Oulipian Hervé Le Tellier and is about a writer named Vincent Balmer writing a novel. The metafictional playfulness extends a few layers deeper. In addition to writing Antonio’s story, Vincent is working on a novel about Pescheux d’Herbinville, a slighted lover known primarily for killing math prodigy Evariste Galois in a duel. The jealousy that drove Galois’ murder mirrors Vincent’s own emotional tensions provoked by Antonio’s romantic successes, leading the reader to turn pages faster to see if Vincent’s actions will also align with d’Herbinville’s. Additionally, Vincent has been translating a Portuguese Borgesian author named Jaime Montestrela. Montestrela’s works are all snippets about imaginary cultures engaging in a variety of strange but sublime religious rituals:
“When January 12 falls on a Sunday, the Picardy village of Abelvilly still to this day celebrates it as the Feast of the Gulerian, when this creature is hunted for the tender meat on its large fleshy ears. The gulerian is a patagrade with a bright orange pelt, similar to a badger in size and tortoise in mobility and agility, specific to that part of the Caux region and sadly extinct since the first Feast of the Gulerian in the year of grace 1197.”
We aren’t given to know if Le Tellier has hidden additional constraints within these stories, but Vincent thinks that Montestrela has. Each snippet is mailed to a different person on a different date, and each is dutifully recorded in his book. Are the stories secret messages passed around the world by post? More importantly, what are they communicating to us about Vincent?
Little of Le Tellier’s work has been published in English thus far, and what has been published has been of quite a different nature. Dalkey Archive has published two of his works. A Thousand Pearls (For a Thousand Pennies) is not a novel but rather a list of things that the author is thinking about. The Sextine Chapel is a series of erotic, interconnected short stories. Other Press is bringing his more traditional novels to the U.S., starting with Enough About Love and followed by Electrico W., both translated by Adriana Hunter. Most Oulipian novels, like the two Dalkey works, wear their membership patches on their sleeves; their constraints are the lure for the potential reader. Then there are those like Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes that defy the expectations impressed on them with the stamping of the press’s label by being, simply, beautiful novels, regardless of the witty games that the authors played in writing them. Eléctrico W., by Hervé Le Tellier, falls into this latter category, pleasing both fans of prime numbers and wordplay as well as those looking for beauty and truth.
Although I fall into the first category, it is Le Tellier’s talent for revealing simple truths about the everyday world that most pleased me about this book. Le Tellier’s skill at crystalline observation is ironic considering Vincent’s personal preference for embellished fantasy. He is a man who lives firstly in his imagination and only secondly in the world around him. The consequences of this reality blindness harm him every day. His love life is hopeless; he cannot flirt with women because he doesn’t recognize when they are mocking him. His novel is a failure; it is intended to be a portrait of Antonio but he never bothers to discern who Antonio actually is.
Unsurprisingly, Vincent dismisses the sort of aphorisms that I found myself praising. Antonio’s talk is “cheap airport fiction,” and inspired by these drunken truths, Vincent says, “I came up with a new aphorism along the lines of ‘No aphorism tells the truth’…” Antonio works as a documentary photographer and his job is to create this kind of faux meaningful vision: “the girl dying behind the vulture”, as Vincent describes these works that superimpose beauty on violence in a cheap attempt at importance.The irony of Vincent’s distaste for aphorism is that, immersed in his own skewed vision of the world, he fails to realize what a self-hating sentiment it is. Despite, or perhaps because of, Vincent’s inability to authentically interact with the world, he uses his imagination to create his own truths to fill the world with.
The plot of Eléctrico W is propelled by Vincent attempting to construct scenarios to make life seem meaningful. When Antonio relates a tale of a long-lost love, Vincent decides to track the lover down to bring about a storybook ending. He even invents his own imaginary girlfriend because the story he is creating works better that way. Each chapter he–often in a ridiculous, American comedy-film fashion–adds an extra layer to the fantasy he is concocting from his apartment in Lisbon.
Eventually those around Vincent begin to reveal that they are people, not characters for him to write, and he must learn to release himself into the meaninglessness of reality. Vincent wasn’t the only one surprised by this; don’t we as readers also expect characters to serve the plot by behaving interestingly? While Vincent has trouble understanding Antonio’s request to control his own reality, the reader, who even further removed from acknowledging Antonio, is doubly shocked. The metafictional nature of the novel within a novel adds a confusing sheen of realism to the work, making it even more confusing about what right a reader has to demand certain qualities of Vincent or any character. What I initially took for a cheap postmodern trick succeeded fantastically, for not only Vincent but I, the reader, had lost track of what was true.