This novel in the guise of a travel guide might intrigue literary theorists but will likely exasperate readers looking for plot, character, motivation and meaning.
There was a period during the late ’60s and ’70s when college students who fancied themselves intellectuals devoured the nouveau roman (“new novel”) of Robbe-Grillet as avidly as they did the existentialism of Sartre and Camus. Even then, Ricardou remained little-known outside his native France, though this new translation of his 1969 novel shows even more of an absurdist’s sense of humor than most literary experimentalists. The prose at the outset is as descriptively flat as a travel guidebook, with the author working his way through towns that are not only organized alphabetically but geographically, and perhaps thematically as well. Along the way, the reader notices the recurrence of a prominent painter of the region, Albert Crucis, whose name (or pseudonym) translates as “white cross.” All of the place-name translations may (or may not) have significance as well, or so the reader might learn from Atta and Olivier, two Crucis scholars whose novel this becomes as it progresses. Or does it? It turns out that one or both of the scholars have already read this book, at least the preceding pages, as part of their research, and thus ponder whether they have any existence outside these pages. Later, the novel introduces a first-person “I” who not only purports to be the author, but who provides insight into the narrative (or non-narrative) strategy and predicts how the novel will be received: “The publication of this work will allow some to advance further down the path toward coherence, but from a predictable majority, I have no doubt, it will garner nothing but sarcasm and occasional threats.” The reader wondering what it all means will find himself in the position of the character with a magnifying glass monitoring the movement of ants.
Fiction about the essence of fiction challenges the reader to distinguish between what’s allegory and what’s arbitrary.