Saturday, September 20, 2008

Looking into A Void

A Void (in French, La Disparition), written by Georges Perec in 1969 without using the vowel “e” , is probably the finest example of lipogrammatic fiction in world literature (you’ll find a short Wiki tutorial on Lipogram HERE).

The book is a kind of metaphysical thriller, following the well-acclaimed Borgesian tradition. The protagonist of the book, Anton Vowl, suddenly disappears from his residence in Paris. His friends try to solve the mystery of this strange disappearance by rummaging through Vowl’s diary, notes and letters, containing mostly his strange word plays, metaphoric writings and yes, lipograms. In the process of getting into the heart of the mystery they find themselves at the very centre of an atrocious and hyperbolic conspiracy which puts their own lives in danger. The book goes on unfurling plots after plots which become more and more complicated each time, involving murders, family secrets and relentless pursuit after trails. The book is also infested with Perec's notorious cross-references and red herrings. Here, amongst other things, we find a lipogrammatic version of Rimbaud's poem and that of Shelley's Ozymandias.

The pun in the title quite succinctly describes its theme—it is a book about a void as well as avoidance. The book has a void due to its strange avoidance of the vowel “e”, which, in turn, determines the fate of its characters (remember the surname of the protagonist—Vowl, a vowel without an“e”). That’s why, throughout the book we repeatedly come across a strange folio consisting of 26 volumes, out of which the 5th one is always missing. In fact, the book itself has 26 chapters but there is no 5th chapter in it, but a conspicuous blank page instead. Each of the characters in the book is a prey of an unavoidable destiny. The shadow of a past mystery runs after their lives and curiously links them up to a common misfortune. It hints at the fact that we all have a void inherent in our existence and however hard we try to avoid that, it doggedly chases after us and determines our fates. On the other hand, if we somehow manage to peep into that void, we are doomed forever. Characters in this book are in search of that void because finding it out will give a meaning to their otherwise absurd lives—that is, being mere puppets within their own socio-political milieu, without the ability to intervene or change its course. They pursue it through joining the missing links, following the faint trail of some distant possibilities and by pure coincidences, thereby trying to overcome their limitations and restrictions (it also brings forth the limitation of the book itself, the restriction of not using “e”). But at the end, all their efforts amount to a fatalistic blow, exterminating themselves. So, eventually, the book becomes a commentary on its own self, desperately trying to give a meaning to a random sequence of events, and once that is done, it has to stop, to come to an inevitable conclusion.

PS: When I first started reading the book, I was quite put off as the language appeared to me a bit phony and cumbersome. I was actually blaming Perec mentally for writing such a book after the brilliant feat of “Life: A User’s Manual. For the initial 14 chapters, I just carried on reading as I didn’t want to add another book to my “to be read” collection and was trying to finish it as soon as possible. But my interest started building up from section IV of the book (it has six sections in total, without any section II), and after that, it was a complete literary whirlwind which didn’t allow me to put down the book once, except for that 40 winks at night (that too, chock-full of nightmares).

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