Claude Ollier’s “Law and Order” (1961)

I wrote a review recently of Ollier’s best-known (in English, which isn’t saying much) work, The Mise-en-Scene. As one of the less-publicised nouveau-roman authors, only four of his books have been translated into English, and the first of these – Law and Order (translated by Ursule Molinaro) – was published in 1971 by Red Dust in New York, and doesn’t seem to have been reprinted since.

First of all, that title. Law and Order suggests a police procedural, a crime novel, a daytime TV drama. It isn’t any of these, though unspecified violent crimes have taken place and corrupt police are responsible. The original title is Le Maintien de l’Ordre, the literal translation of which is “maintaining the order” or “the maintenance of order”. Either would have been a more appropriate – if perhaps less eye-catching – title. Because this is a story in which a narrator, trapped by circumstance and under surveillance, evidently in fear of his life, attempts – constantly – to impose a form of control upon his situation. He does this by means of the detailed description of the view from his seventh-floor apartment, in a (possibly) North African town. Everything the eye can see is documented, and, unlike The Mise-en-Scene, the narrative voice conjectures about what can’t be directly seen. That at times it does this by trying to account for the length of time certain actions may have taken, to fit hypotheses, immediately draws parallels with The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet, where a travelling watch salesman who has (probably) murdered a young girl, endlessly tries to stretch real and fictitious events to cover the time of the incident in order to provide himself with an alibi.

The dustjacket of Law and Order, obviously trying to hook readers of Robbe-Grillet, describes Ollier as “a friend and contemporary” which, given that his book is so similar in many respects to Robbe-Grillet’s masterpiece Jealousy, is slightly unfortunate, and risks painting Ollier as an epigone of the more rigorous, more experimental Robbe-Grillet. (There is another nod, within the story, to Robbe-Grillet in the naming of an establishment “Cafe des Allies”, the same as that in The Erasers.)

Jealousy uses a narrative technique which has since been dubbed “je-neant” (absent I). The story is told by a narrator so passive he effaces himself completely from the action, to the extent that the reader has to make inferences from the text in order to realise his existence. Law and Order almost – but not quite – does the same. Most chapters are bookended by third-person reports (“Without a moment’s hesitation I turned around”), which undermines the effect somewhat.

As in The Mise-en-Scene, the description of a map is given particular emphasis. In the earlier work, the gaps and empty spaces of an under-surveyed terrain create a highly ambiguous, and ultimately useless document, illustrating that work’s exploration of the impossibility of knowing anything for certain. Here the reader is treated to a stunning inversion of cartography, with a wonderful description of the town plan not as a network of streets surrounding built-up areas, but as a built-up area worked upon by lanes and alleys, much as a massif is eroded by streams, gulleys and rivers. This is done as part of the narrator’s epiphany, exactly midway through the text; a moment when he at last is able to impose order on the initially random features that make up the view of the town from above.

The narrator is watched by two corrupt ex-cops, Perez and Marietti. He describes their stakeout, their banal activities – reading the paper, polishing their car – as they hang around outside his apartment block. Similarly to Jealousy, where the jealous narrator husband can no longer meet his wife’s gaze, here, any time one of his observers raises their head toward his floor, the narrator’s view immediately switches focus as he retreats from their sight: “slowly he lifts his head toward the top floors…Below, the old section of the city looks shrunken”.

Of their surveillance we are certain (unlike much that takes place – or maybe doesn’t – in The Mise-en-Scene), but of the chronology of events we are not. A series of violent events has rocked the town – shootings, a bomb, fraud and corruption – but it is never entirely clear if the stakeout precedes the narrator’s discovery of Perez and Marietti’s activities, or follows it. Events that happen may only be being remembered (as with Robbe-Grillet, events in memory take as much precedence – they are as objectively real – as those happening “now”), giving the story a vaguely circular shape. Time is fluid, or ambiguous: “Six o’clock…Always, everywhere. Every day… Yesterday. Today…”. As a result there is no climax to the story; or rather, almost any chapter may be the climax.

Although it doesn’t reach the heights of Robbe-Grillet’s best work, Law and Order is, like The Mise-en-Scene, in many ways more accessible and worth tracking down.

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None the wiser: Claude Ollier’s “The Mise-en-Scene” (1958)

A confession: I’d never heard of Claude Ollier until a few weeks ago. Although I’ve read numerous mid-century French nouveau romanistes (Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Sarraute, Simon, Butor, Pinget) I had never come across any reference to Ollier, probably because his work had not been published by John Calder, and the few English translations of his work are not easy to find.

The Mise-en-Scene, translated by Dominic Di Bernardi, is published by the ever-reliable Dalkey Archive and is one of the most accessible nouveau romans I’ve read. The “story” tells of a surveyor, Lassalle, working on the plans for a new route through the mountains of French-held North Africa. Lassalle is following in the footsteps – literally – of a previous engineer, who seems to have been murdered. The novel is an account of his fortnight’s stay in the mountainous region, trying to plot a route for the new road. This being a nouveau roman, where the way the story is being told is as significant as the events within the narrative, the concept of “spoiler alert” is rendered meaningless. I could tell you what happens at the end because it doesn’t matter.

The Mise-en-Scene is a book about the impossibility of knowing anything, and the whole book is a sustained meditation on the futility of trying to attain definitive, objective knowledge.

Descriptions are highly detailed, and use of Arabic or local dialect words further dislocates the European reader, making it difficult to visualise the terrain being described. The amount of detail works against visualisation, in an ironic undermining of traditional realist attempts at verisimilitude.

When he first arrives in the largest local town, Assameur, Lassalle is puzzled at night by a picture seen on the wall of his room. He sees what he thinks is a map, but daylight reveals it to be an incongruous seaside print. This is the first example of things not only not being what they seem, but even when they are seen, offer no answers.

There has been a murder – a young girl has been stabbed – but there is confusion in Lassalle’s mind about the name of the victim, and though he has his suspicions, his local contact Ba Iken’s constantly shifting evasions get him no closer to an understanding of what has happened. No version of the events seems to properly fit, so at every step, ground which was by no means solid becomes even more unstable.

Additionally, without technological means of apprehending the world, he is at the mercy of his memory and his senses. An “imposing panorama would be worth photographing [i.e. recording objectively, but he]…is sorry for the first time that he forgot his camera.” Later, “only the binoculars could remove any doubt. But [they] are at the bottom of the clothing bags, in the minivan”. But even with assistance of civilisation’s tools, he is no better off: maps are “stingy with details” and are full of blank spaces. Notations become fewer in the mountainous areas, or are absent altogether.

Lassalle constantly tries to tie together names of people with their village, in an effort to impose order, and thus gain understanding: “Ichou…Ichou ben X…ben Schlomo, grandson of the maqadden of the Asguine”. On asking his young assistant Ichou’s age, in order to complete this mental picture, he is given an ambiguous reply.

He writes in his diary, purposely to avoid the unreliability of memory, but his daily entries – some of which, ironically, are written days afterwards anyway – are so brief and cursory as to be meaningless. This is especially notable given that Ollier’s book, as with those of Alain Robbe-Grillet, is written in the present tense. As Robbe-Grillet says in his autobiography Ghosts in the Mirror, the “past historic” tense imposes “definitive glaciation of the most incomplete gestures, the most ephemeral thoughts”. It would, therefore, be a self-defeating move to have written this work in the past tense: the whole point is that we do not know anything for certain; there is and can be no such “glaciation” or certainty. We are made constantly aware by use of the present tense of the passage of time, especially as marked out by the passage of shadows over the mountains and ravines, and in this regard Ollier’s work differs from that of Robbe-Grillet, whose books are full of moments of stasis.

The man Lassalle suspects – of everything and anything – is Idder, a belligerent local who appears each day holding a different implement, magnified in Lassalle’s mind into a weapon. On one of his forays into the mountain, Lassalle is shown rock paintings, and – disturbingly – they seem to portray a double murder by someone wielding a weapon. He attempts in vain to follow conversations in the local dialect in the hope of gaining some clue, especially as he becomes aware that Ba Iken is maybe not as truthful or reliable as he’d thought. But even if he can pick out proper names, his inability to ground them in the context of the conversation only creates ambiguity, and fosters more suspicion.

One scene in particular encapsulates the novel in miniature. As he begins his return, having successfully surveyed the region for a road whose future construction is by no means certain, he watches an army of ants devour a scorpion. “His curiosity came to the fore again…with the feeling that the action is going to lunge forward or that an event of capital importance is in progress. But everything that happens is only very normal and exasperatingly slow.” There are no epiphanies, and knowing any more about something reveals no “meaning”, but only more of the thing itself.

At the end, on his return to Assameur, his previous contact is on leave, and things have changed in his absence. Lassalle has fewer reference points than before. With no continuity, he is unable to talk over the details of either the girl’s murder or Lessing’s, with the man who he had previous been dealing with. He – and the reader – is denied any closure.

Ollier’s worldview is vertiginous. Like a fractal, looking closer only reveals more details – some of which may mirror those seen at a higher level (the drawings on the rock echo the murders in the region), and the same patterns recur. At the same time, there is no “big picture”: if you try to pull back to gain perspective, all that’s revealed are the gaps in your knowledge. It’s a dizzying perspective.

The Mise-en-Scene forms the first part of an eight-book series in French, and though I’ve now ordered one of his other works (Law and Order), I can only find evidence that two more of his novels have ever been translated into English. On the basis of this book, it would be great if Dalkey Archive (or Alma in the UK) were to commission translations of more of Ollier’s work.

 

Sources:

Ollier, Claude: The Mise-en-Scene (Dalkey Archives, 2000)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (John Calder, 1984)

 

photo: Jamie Gorman