The New French Extremity bludgeoned cinema audiences of the late 1990s to mid 2000s with a new twist on the horror genre that had to be seen to be believed. Only once, though, because who could rewatch Irréversible (2002), knowing what ordeal is in store for the two lovers? Or Martyrs (2008), where young women are tortured by a cult to induce a ‘transfiguration’ that may grant them a glimpse of life after death. The cult leader even tries to convince one victim she is being tortured for good reason by showing her photographs of women who have died having achieved this look of transcendence. These films’ unflinching gaze and attempts to find meaning in appalling suffering, or to understand why people do such things, is why I think these films were so controversial, and are still so powerful.
This obsession with the moment of death and with interpreting senseless horror is at the heart of Farabeuf, a disorientating début novel first published in Spanish in 1965. The plot, as far as you could describe this hall of mirrors as having one, centres around a horrific photograph of a public execution, thought to have been taken during the Peking Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the twentieth century. The introduction tells us that Elizondo considered the image ‘a type of zahir, referring to a short story of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges in which the narrator finds himself obsessed by an object (a coin) for no apparent reason’. This image provides the focal point in the reader’s non-chronological, non-linear orbit around the novel’s three main tableau. The first is set in Peking, 1901. Farabeuf, a physician to the French delegation, attends an execution with a young nurse. In one photograph he takes that day, the doctor seems to capture the instant of the victim’s death. Later on, back in Paris, the doctor climbs a creaky staircase while the nurse, in the hallway, tries to divine the future with a Ouija board. Another time, the doctor and nurse walk by the seaside when she spots a starfish. The nurse picks up the creature but is quickly repulsed by it and throws it into the sea.
By now you should have a pretty good sense of whether this book is for you. Farabeuf is highly experimental and unapologetically demanding. The story is fractured, disordered and complex; a puzzle for the reader to decipher. The hard shifts in perspective, character, location and time also keep you at a calculated distance from the work. You’re never allowed to forget you are reading a text:
You have asked a question: “Is it possible that we are a lie?” you say. […] You might, for example, be the characters in a literary work of the fantastic genre who have suddenly gained autonomous life. […] Perhaps we are a film, a film that lasts barely an instant. Or the image of others, not ourselves, in a mirror. Perhaps we are the thoughts of a madman. Perhaps one of us is real and the others, his hallucination. There is still another possibility. Perhaps we are a printing error that has inadvertently slipped by, that makes an otherwise clear text confusing.
For fans of Pound, Joyce or Cortázar—authors Elizondo is often compared to—Farabeuf is a rich, playful and thought-provoking work. John Incledon’s translation work should be highly commended here. Not only for helping bring such an interesting work into English, but producing a text that never loses its fiendish complexity or provocative voice. The novel itself ranges across letters, detective-style cross-examinations, playful streams of consciousness and taunting monologues by the elusive narrator:
Try to remember everything, right from the beginning. The slightest detail might be of critical importance. The most insignificant clue may help us discover an essential fact. It is vital that you take a detailed, exhaustive inventory of all the things, all the feelings, all the emotions that collectively shape what perhaps is a dream.
However, the narrator’s ironic tone conceals a serious appeal to the reader. The concerns of the novel are closely aligned with those of the French nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, namely a heartfelt challenge to the conventions of literary realism. Alain Robbe-Grillet, a key nouveau roman author, wrote that
The author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader’s cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary, to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work—and the world—and thus to learn to invent his own life.
As Farabeuf assaults us with its mind-bending tale of body horror, bizarre sex and torture, it is also trying to teach us a new way to read, and to interpret experience.
It’s hard to say I enjoyed reading Farabeuf. In much the same way that it’s hard to say I enjoyed watching those relentless French films. Both types of experience were scalding; there is the ferocious instant of the burn itself, and then there is the quiet but needling discomfort that lasts for days.
Dan Bradley is a writer and translator from Japanese. His work has appeared in Granta, New Welsh Review and the TLS. He lives in London.
Farabeuf, or The Chronicle of an Instant was published in March 2015 by Ox and Pigeon