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A Fascination With Fish : SAINT GLINGLIN, By Raymond Queneau / Translated by James Sallis (Dalkey Archive Press: $19.95; 169 pp.)

August 01, 1993|RICHARD EDER

Had Raymond Queneau chosen the law of gravity for one of his fictional-poetical-slapstick fables, he would have written from the point of view of the falling apple: how it felt when Isaac Newton's head got in its way, and how it went on to revolutionize theoretical physics for apples.

Queneau, who died in 1976, was a stellar figure in the French literary world and only a faint comet in ours. He is best known here for "Zazie in the Metro" as made into a movie; and perhaps for "Exercises in Style," which performs 99 variations on a plot that involves little more than a man getting off a bus.

It is the variations that allow Queneau to find all kinds of unexpected possibilities in an apparently ordinary reality. Like Magritte, of whom he is the literary cousin, he will take the stolid shape of a bowler hat or a toilet and suggest that any minute they will turn into something fearful or bewitching. With Magritte it was usually the former; with Queneau, the latter. Although his writing can be elusive and difficult, there is a smiling benevolence to it. It is like the movement of a curtain in a game of hide-and seek. The point is not what is there, which may be a trick or a deliberate distraction, but the seriocomic act of peeking behind the curtain.

"St. Glinglin," now published in English in a remarkable translation by James Sallis, is a fable whose extravagant plot is told with Queneau's odd matter-of-factness, and whose exhilaration comes in the small upsets. It is located in a place called Home Town, where the inhabitants, though imaginary, bear a considerable resemblance to the cramped provincials in what the French like to call--gilding the cabbage-- la France profonde . Home Town is governed by a tyrannical mayor, Nabonidus and, even more, by being set in its ways. One of these ways is the certainty that it will never rain; another is the annual celebration of St. Glinglin's Day. This is a French term referring to a nonexistent saint and it means, in essence: never.

Nabonidus has concealed Helene, a daughter who speaks in tongues, on a remote mountain. He holds his three sons in subjection and, in various fashions, they all rebel. Pierre, sent to neighboring Foreign Town to study, comes back with an alternate vision of life. Instead of eternal sunshine and activity, he advocates eternal rain and a mystical philosophy that exalts quietude and fish.

With the help of Jean, a saintly brother, and Paul, a worldly one, he throws Nabonidus into the Petrifying Lake, which turns him into a statue. Pierre brings the statue back to Home Town to serve as the idol for his own usurping authority. Arbitrary as his deposed father, though much nicer, he uses the authority to make it rain incessantly. The villagers submit, complain, rebel; their local tavern has six inches of water on the floor and fish swim in it. Eventually, all is much as before--sunny and fishless--and the Nabonidus dynasty is dead or dispersed. Plus ca change is one part of Queneau's unspectacular message, along with something about sons overthrowing their fathers and then becoming them.

But the message is not the point, except that it provides a vehicle for Queneau's cheerfully dislocated ramble. The same is true of the plot, whose strenuous caprice sometimes edges upon whimsy. Whimsy is surrealism's pitfall.

It is the ramble that gives "St. Glinglin" its allure: a beguiling wackiness laced with mysteries--half-open doors we pass too quickly to be sure whether what is going on within is an axe-murder or a family carving the Sunday roast. Take the St. Glinglin celebration. Each household sets up stacks of china in the main square. There is rivalry over who has the gaudiest pile. Nabonidus wins out by oppressive volume: 400,000 pieces including 7,000 coffeepots and 317,000 egg cups. On a signal, a universal smashing begins.

"Proprietors and visitors alike hurled themselves shrieking onto crockery and porcelain. Some smashed salad bowls with their feet; others got hold of a large soup tureen, hurling it into a pile of fruit dishes and demolishing the whole lot with great commotion," Queneau writes. "Plates seemed for a moment to hang immobile in the air, then took a nose dive and crashed in pieces to the ground. Still others sat down brutally on great oval plates. One fantasist forced his head into a sugar bowl and freed himself with a blow from a coffeepot."

Nabonidus uses a tommy gun. This is not what the eternally grumbling villagers complain of, but the fact that he smashes his exhibit all by himself. Later they will be equally resentful of Pierre's eternal rainfall and his plan to replace the old festival with a new one in which his sister-in-law, a movie star, will swim in a pool dug in the central square. "Lying down?" they mutter in the tavern. "That's obscene."

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