Tuesday, March 15, 2011
By René Belletto
University of Nebraska Press
Coda is the newest novella (or at least the newest that’s been translated into English) from acclaimed, French author René Belletto, who has written around twenty books, including novels, poetry and criticism, as well as a few screenplays. From the opening pages, we know that Coda is going to be an unusual book, since it’s epigraph, which reads, ‘From her lovely delicate hands/I take the book and I look’, is actually attributed to the very book we are reading. A reader unsettled by this unusual paratext will perhaps be even more alarmed by the exceptional declaration that opens the novel: ‘It is to me that we owe our immortality, and this is the story that proves it beyond all doubt.’
But at the heart of this 88-page novella is a crime thriller—albeit a strange one—that includes suspicious deaths, kidnapping, femme fatales, nefarious cults and psychotic killers. Setting off this most unusual chain of events, however, is a surprisingly banal circumstance: the protagonist returns home to find his daughter missing and a package of clams in his freezer that he does not remember purchasing. This packet of clams turns out to be his first clue in unravelling a great mystery, and more surprises and twists occur in this novella than would normally happen in a book five times its size.
But this, of course, is the point. Despite its flirtations with the mode of the thriller, Coda is ultimately an avant-garde work that betrays an inheritance to the nouveau roman, a post-World War II movement in France that often combined experimental techniques with the detective novel. Coda, then, is laced with intentional absurdity and surreal moments that are reminiscent of the work of Cesar Aira (although it must be said that Coda is not nearly as strong as Aira’s best work). The protagonist is independently wealthy, for example, for the reason that his father invented a ‘perpetual motion machine’; these machines, however, aren’t truly capable of perpetual motion, although their unusual mechanisms are visually intriguing, leading people to purchase them for decorative purposes.
The mystery at the heart of Coda is ultimately ‘solved’, but Belletto leaves other big metaphysical questions intentionally open (I mean this in the most literal possible way, but can’t explain it better without ruining the book), and the final gesture of Coda, befitting its title, is one that returns us to the beginning, making the book a sort of fictional ouroboros. Here, Belletto’s plays with the notion of perpetual motion introduced earlier and raises significant questions about the narratives we tend to construct around our lives.
But for all of its experimentation and madcap absurdity, Coda is, by and large, simply an entertaining book to read (provided, of course, that you aren’t the sort of reader who is put off by experimental, French fiction). For all of its engagement with philosophical concepts (the end of the novel, in particular, seems to recall Blanchot’s writing on death), this is surprisingly light and easy to read novel, which revels in its own pulp-y gestures and strange twists and turns.
Posted by Emmett Stinson at 9:28 AM