Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that Pierre Jourde’s doorstopper went largely unnoticed in the English language media discussing the rentrée of 2012. The more interesting it appeared to me, since I am wildly excited by the recent spate of big novels in French, the point of departure being the publication of Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) in 2006. Mind you, I regard The Absolute Marshal as a seriously flawed novel, a noble failure of sorts, but its grand ambition could not leave me indifferent. Evoking the recent political upheavals in the Middle East, Pierre Jourde created a kind of summa of the dictator novel in which Borgesian conundrums are intertwined with large-scale geopolitical surrealism reminiscent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day. Very indicative of the overall tone of the novel are the six epigraphs taken from Valère Novarina, Shakespeare, Saddam Hussein, José Gaspar de Francia, Lawrence Durrell, and, of course, Jorge Luis Borges.
Marshal Alessandro Y is a monstrous crossbreed between Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Idi Amin with the intertextual pedigree reaching back to the fictionalised Doctor Francia of Roa Bastos’ I the Supreme and the giants in Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. We first encounter him in the midst of a civil war, besieged by rebels in the capital of the imaginary country Hyrcasia. Most of the dictator’s bloviation is addressed to his elderly servant Manfred-Célestin. The story of the marshal unfolds as he berates, derides and belittles his faithful factotum. Although invested with absolute power, the marshal does not hold absolute control over the story-telling. The novel is divided into four parts narrated by four different characters: the marshal, one of the marshal’s doubles, Schlangenfeld (a woman serving in the Secret Service of the dictator), and the said humble servant Manfred-Célestin disguised as “a granny”. In the course of each of the four narrations, fractal by fractal, the psychedelic picture of the marshal’s reign is assembled before our eyes.
For his novel, Jourde has created a hybrid geography in which imaginary countries with such names as Araxia and Novopotamia co-exist with real states. Hyrcasia is one such make-believe entity with a desert climate. Its supreme leader is a grotesque caricature of a dictator who seeks to expand and multiply his power by any means available. All the boxes are ticked with an audacious brio. Alessandro Y embarks on a military career while still a child, serving in a special unit composed of minors. He quickly ascends the career ladder to become the chief of the Presidential Guard, takes part in a military coup, and, after eliminating his competitors, becomes the supreme leader of the country. A pretty well-known scenario at this time and age.
What dictator doesn’t want to conquer a piece of land? The marshal is no exception here. His military campaign is satyric and outright ludicrous to such a degree that at a certain point I stopped even trying to catch some not-so-obvious hints at historical events, and simply kept reading it as a grotesque and wildly entertaining set-piece. The conquest starts with Araxia, a small country not unlike Kuwait, invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990. From this humble beginning, the dictator’s conquest spreads across most of Eurasia owing to the military genius of Field Marshal Ghore, the commander of the Hyrcasian troops. In its wake, the rapidly advancing army leaves a constellation of puppet governments, sowing the seeds of the potential internecine conflicts and insurgency that will break out as soon as the imperial grasp loosens on the occupied territories expanded to unmanageable proportions. The great campaign begins and ends like a computer game, which corresponds to the zeitgeist of most of the recent warfare.
Besides being cruel, a dictator should be a crank. Alessandro Y possesses both features in spades. His major passions are dinosaurs and the taxidermy of political enemies. Receptions usually take place in a great palaeontology hall exhibiting dozens of skeletons of prehistoric monsters: everything from the indispensable tyrannosauruses to species less known by the general public, like gorgonopsids and deinonychuses. However, the dictator seems to be even more passionate about the basement of his palace where he can admire the “dolls”. Those are numerous opponents of the regime, either genuine or alleged, skilfully treated and stuffed under the supervision of Colonel Gris, the head of the Secret Service. One can imagine something right of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, but there arise more sinister connotations when we learn that not all the corpses remained intact:
There Gris exercised his art on the conspirators. You wouldn’t recognise them: their bones serving as radiator caps, their hollowed-out members turned into umbrella stands, their thoraxes into liquor cabinets, their skulls transformed into cigarette lighters with eyes that light up; somebody’s skin covering somebody else’s body like a slightly wrinkled slipcase. He grafted a stool on an old minister. There is a colonel with a double door that you can open. Inside, you can see a small general, carefully boned and folded. Many heads share the same body, and there are bodies lined up in iron wardrobes, one behind another, like overcoats on coat-hangers.
Gris (the French for “grey”) is a shadowy presence throughout the book. We never “see” or “hear” him, but always learn about his activities through other characters. Thus, to him is addressed most of the testimony of the former secret agent Schlangenfeld who is interviewed by an anonymous researcher about her work for the Service. As we learn more about Gris, a Himmler-like figure emerges out of the mist with the Green Guard (a military unit under the Secret Service) being an analogue of SS. One of the subplots features horrible crimes committed by the Green Guard in the breakaway republic of Balkaria. The atrocities are captured on film by an American journalist. The discovery of the concentration camps, later on, make this parallel more than justified. Schlangenfeld is in the thrall of Gris’ power and intelligence. She is the perfect agent for him, ready to do anything for the reinforcement of the system of terror and control he represents. Her main duties involve intelligence collection while sleeping with the high-rank officers of the Defence Ministry. Her story overwhelms with the intricacy of the intrigue and power struggle within the state apparatus. One has to read her narration at least twice to get most of the details concerning the rivalries, alliances and treacheries proliferating under the dictatorial rule. The fact that Alessandro Y is increasingly more often substituted by his numerous doubles renders things even more complicated.
There are quite a few Borgesian tropes employed in the novel, the most conspicuous being the maze, bifurcation and doubles. For example, the palatial basement housing the grisly collection is, in a fact, a labyrinth.
It is a disconcerting geography, Manfred-Célestin. There are passages in the walls and doors that are taken for screens. One has to enter through wardrobes or freezers, to gyrate infinitely, to ascend in order to descend. The Marshal managed everything in secret, year after year, making sure that the workers and the engineers disappeared after each extension. The memory about the configuration of his labyrinth was lost, devoured by the erosion of the past and the false plans that he left lying around just for the fun of it.
The obvious allusion to another favourite subject of Borges sneaks in when the dictator proclaims “you are just inhabitants of a branching-out of possible futures that will never get realised”. But the real fun ensues when Alessandro Y, in fear of assassination launches the production of his doubles on an almost industrial scale. Scores of men more or less similar in their appearance to the Marshal become an army of clones after ingenious cosmetic surgeries. At a certain point everybody, except perhaps the dictator himself, is in doubt whether this particular marshal is real or fake. Moreover, since some of the doubles have a more privileged status being “original” ones, they in their turn are provided with their own doubles to substitute them during less important activities. Gradually the situation comes to such a state, that there is a double on the permanent basis ruling semi-autonomously in the presidential palace, while the original marshal is hiding in some secret residence, and the Secret Service is making efforts to hunt down some runaway doubles roaming the lands of Hyrcasia and causing quite a stir among the inhabitants. No need for a better illustration of absolute power based on fiction and simulation.
The old servant, tottering on the verge of senility, tells us about the inevitable decline of the dictator in the fourth part. Again, there is nothing new in this development: the country is torn apart by the rebels, the separatists, the troops supporting the interim government and the diminishing forces still faithful to the Marshal. The butt of the dictator’s mockery at the beginning of the novel now becomes the chronicler of his later days. That’s the ironic outcome of the long and tortuous journey undertaken by Alessandro Y in search of absolute power. Pierre Jourde does not really attempt to say anything new about dictatorship, as if it were possible anyway, and here lies the main weakness of the novel. Many episodes are fascinating; one has fun stumbling on allusions to Italo Calvino and Edgar Alan Poe, but there is a lingering sense of the superfluousness of this dictator novel project that I couldn’t get rid of. I liked the execution, but the main idea regarding the fictitious foundations of absolute power and the reliance on continuous simulation in order to sustain it left me pretty much indifferent. The attempt to summarise most of the negative aspects of dictatorship does not really justify the complex architecture of the narrative Jourde had been building for seventeen years. It had been done before with more success by Latin American writers. There could have been more than this synthetic portrayal of an ogre in power and his milieu. That being said, the novel is in many aspects extraordinary, especially with regard to its language. The range of vocabulary employed by Jourde is astounding; he is a true virtuoso when it comes to juggling different registers. I don’t remember any other French novel that I’ve read recently which would mine the French language for its riches with such creative abandon. There is no doubt that The Absolute Marshal will be enjoyed by many English-speaking readers once it gets translated.