In the world of creative art, nothing can be more exciting and at the same time rarer and riskier (for the creator as well as for that creator’s audience) than when an artist, who has established and settled within certain well-defined artistic limits, suddenly takes off on a new tangent into a completely different subrealm of that same art. It happens more often in music than in literature. Bach dared embark on a Kaffee Kantate , Verdi turned from Otello to Falstaff , and Haydn relished surprises throughout his career, not only at the end of one syrnphony. On the other hand, Colette did whip off a libretto for Ravel’s Lʼenfant et Les sortilèges , as did W. H. Auden and E. M. Forster (no less) for Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd ; but Sigmund Freud never wrote limericks, and Lewis Carroll, for sure, would never have dared attempt a sequel to Middlemarch .
Well, surprise, surprise! What have we here? World Literature Today has already noted in its pages (see WLT 70:1, pp. 79-82) that Albert Russo is uncategorizable, but still, from the heartrending seriousness of his previous novels, all concerned with Africa, with the inextricable and excruciating skeins of colonial racism versus individual lives and loves, here we have a light-as-a-feather comedy of a twelve- year-old petite Française reflecting on life as she continues constantly to be astonished to find it, what with its mysteries et boule de gomme (the latter term being argot for pastilles, a medication impossible to swallow whole, having to loll upon the tongue until dissolving (the entire phrase, an excellent metaphor for all that is incomprehensible), and nothing is more mysterious and incomprehensible to her than the human comedy relating to matters sessuelles , whether they are mot, bis, or météro . In short, Zapinette is prone to malapropisms. She even hears them, willy- nilly, and reports on them as well as she can.
Nevertheless, Russo is here still standing up for minorities and against the injustices inflicted upon them, in this case 1) children, whose thoughts and ideas, Russo maintains (and I think rightly), can be just as sophisticated as any adult’s, even though they do not yet know how to articulate them in conventional terms adults or indeed other children might readily understand; and 2) sessuel deviants, who, whatever else might be said, are living human beings who have as much right to life, liberty, et cetera, as anybody else. At the same time he is 3) poking great ironic fun at that majoriry of the world’s religions which seem to lead to more bloodshed than morality. Even the pope gets a lash of Russo’s forked tongue. We readers chuckle along and even burst out laughing as we advance through this hilarious book, for it is very funny indeed; but we gather, we too willy-nilly, the serious messages underlying the frolicking bounce and jocular mode of the writing. From Sang Mêlé ou ton fils Léopold to Zapinette Baguette & Tagliatelle , what an extraordinary evolution!
Actually, we ought not to be all that surprised. We have already caught glimpses of Russo’s impish humor throughout his oeuvre, often in his most serious passages, not least as put into relief during sexual clinches. Focusing his attention on the most grotesque of human prejudices, Russo has always kept us aware of the farcical, misconceived absurdities shared within in-groups, all in-groups, only previously the
contexts were so utterly serious and we as readers were so caught up by their dramatic contexts that we may not have been aware of the technique, as old as Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Greeks, of heightening horror by contrasting it with comedy. In Zapinette Baguette & Tagliatelle , for the first time chez Russo, we find the humor outrunning the serious, thereby exposing for example homophobia as grotesque and hypocritical. In this connection I find the character of Uncle Alberic, un mot sessuel as I caught glimpses of him through the necessarily distorting lenses of Zapinette’s childhood, a most intriguing personality, and even took to daydreaming about what a great tragic hero he might make in a perfectly straight-forward serious novel. As on so many topics Zapinette hits upon, one longs to hear more. What would she herself say about this novel we are to imagine she has written if she could view it herself some twenty or thirty years hence? We appreciate that Russo knows more than he is allowing Zapinette to tell.
I had better point out that there is not much plot as such, no more than necessary to pinpoint all the characters’ stations in life and the directions of their movements within them. Her uncle rebaptizes her as Zapinette Baguette & Tagliatelle because she is constantly weighing the events life tosses her way in terms of what she has sat through or zapped, as the case may be, before the tiny screen known in anglophone countries as ʻthe boob tube,ʼ and rest assured, Russo has his say on the image of the world that this technological miracle has inflicted upon todayʼs youth and the not-so-youthful too. Or rather, between the lines perhaps, the plot deals simply with the prepubescent Zapinette’s transition to the portals of adolescence, where makeup suddenly interests her for reasons she cannot yet label. Eventually, glimmerings do come to her as to why adults make such a fuss about things sessuelles , along with a suspicion she will eventually be making just as much fuss herself. The book is a great ramble, rather like a chapterless Montaigne popping from one subject to the next, drawing connections no one else would ever have thought of, but with Groucho Marx, say, passing on hints over the writer’s shoulder as to how to go about it. But trying to trace the line that motivates your sticking with a novel from its first to its last word is always idle work. I felt this idleness last year while reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped and tried to analyze its unput-downableness, and concluded that only the word magic explained it. Some writers have it, some writers twist themselves into pretzels to approach it, other writers do not have it at all. Russo has it.
I read prepublication proofs of Russo’s novel (although passages are already being read aloud in intello circles) and I have not yet seen any reviews, yet I predict not only popular but critical success. Inevitably, some smart-ass critic is going to call it the Zazie dans le métro of the nineties, but any resemblance between the two is surely fortuitous and any comparisons can only rebound to Russo’s advantage.
Incidentally, pages 9-15 of the book proper contain an excellent avant-propos by jean-Luc Breton, which certainly should whet your appetite if my words fail to do so. It is scholarly, warm, human, and incisive, and makes me feel humble indeed.
Have yourself a good time. That is my advice to you.