The Interrogation

by JDP

Something of a mad scientist mash-up of Kafka, Camus, and Fuentes, The Interrogation will certainly leave you reeling. At times great and at others too absurd, the novel is nonetheless a nice selection for those looking to round out their French literary chops.

J. M. G. Le Clézio / French / 1965 / 223 pages
Translated from the French by Daphne Woodward

If the word “interrogation” inherently smacks of Kafka, then the association is well-placed with Le Clézio’s first novel. But it’s not a perfect fit. We get some sense of an individual’s fight against an institutionalized, insidious bureaucracy, sure, but not really until the last 30 pages or so. If you flip through the first few pages of The Interrogation and find yourself thinking that the lean characters are rife with existential crises like the ones that pop up in Camus or, perhaps, Kundera, then I think you’re on to something. But, again, the fit isn’t perfect. By the novel’s end, Le Clézio’s rendering of the protagonist is a good deal more humane (and slightly more disjointed) than the treatments wrought by either of those authors. And, finally, if The Interrogation‘s smoke screen narrative style and delusional monologues strike you as resembling the stuff of Fuentes (at their best) or Donoso or Gombrowicz (at their worst), then you’re not far off the mark. The musings of Le Clézio’s protagonist range from thought-provoking decouplings from the material world to bewildering explorations of metaphysical hellscapes where nothing comes at you from the anticipated angle.

So although the antecedents are there, The Interrogation is a thing of its own. This is sometimes sufficient and occasionally frustrating. At any rate, it’s a bit of a ride.

The novel opens with Adam Pollo, a young man living by himself in an abandoned beachside vacation home who cannot remember whether he was (a) just recently relieved of military service or (b) just recently escaped from an asylum (it doesn’t take much progression in the narrative before our educated guesswork settles on the latter scenario). He writes letters to a female acquaintance of his who was either (a) his former lover or (b) his former object of sexual assault (the jury is still out on this one, to my way of thinking, but the relationship is at least dysfunctional in the extreme). Adam is unemployed, marginalized, alone, and contents himself by following dogs around, throwing cue balls at rats, filling notebooks with wildly imaginative writings, drinking, smoking, and stealing chocolate bars. The Interrogation camps out in this environment for quite a while and, I must admit, it makes for pleasant reading. One feels as if one might be on holiday right along with Adam.

But things get complicated when, for want of resources, he’s forced to make foraging incursions into the village down the hill. There, the narrative becomes increasingly hallucinatory and disjointed and Adam seems to be fundamentally incapable of successfully navigating basic interpersonal exchanges. For a span of a dozen pages or so, Adam and his thoughts practically disappear altogether. When they come back into focus, Le Clézio throws them to the reader in the form of scattered and fragmentary pages from Adam’s notebooks. One has little upon which to hang one’s hat at this point in the novel.

It is here that Adam wanders out into a public square and mumbles through an insane oratorical presentation in front of an ever-growing crowd of on-lookers. Eventually he becomes so overwhelmed that he flees the square (with police in pursuit) and locks himself away in a school classroom. The next several pages are comprised of newspaper clippings dedicated to describing Adam’s rather public apprehension as well as the near-simultaneous murder of a couple of German tourists. One isn’t left with the impression that Adam had anything to do with the crime, but the juxtaposition is sinister.

We check back in with Adam after he’s been committed to an asylum and is being interviewed (here “interrogated” is much too strong a verb) by a group of psychology graduate students. In the course of the interview, we learn about Adam’s educational background and the ease with which he’s able to dispel the students’ supposedly insightful questions. They make passing reference to some act (or acts) that Adam committed (but cannot remember) that might have been the source of his diagnosis as a lunatic. The nature of these acts are never explicitly spelled out for the reader, but hints are dropped throughout the narrative. Le Clézio, who at times has been an intrusive narrator, breaks off the novel by half-heartedly scolding the reader for wanting all the loose ends tied up and promising more fiction about Adam or, perhaps, about people who are similar to Adam. It is a weird, unexpected, and jarring conclusion.

In the final analysis, I believe The Interrogation needs more ballast. It is a slim offering at just over 200 pages and there is little plot, only trace character development, scant dialogue, and too much reliance on elemental narration and thematic presentation. Seeking a similarly French comparison, I found his book to resemble Claude Simon’s The Flanders Road in terms of its frustration-to-brilliance ratio. That being said, I can also see why people got excited about this novel (it was Le Clézio’s first and launched him on a trajectory that would culminate in 2008 with the bestowal of a Nobel Prize). It is a novel with many nice ideas and draws extensively from various techniques, many of which are quite compelling. On a page-to-page basis, the writing is often very good and descriptively beautiful. And at several points, I found Adam’s thoughts, speeches, and arguments rather hilarious. I would recommend this book with a bit of reservation to people who were serious about reading deeply into more modern European literature.

Rating: 5 / 10

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