New Impressions of Africa
Raymond Roussel
Atlas Press, 2005, ISBN 1900565099, 256 Pages, Paperback £21.00. [
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Review by Paul Kane

This new bilingual edition of Raymond Roussel’s strangest work, a wonder of his bizarre yet sublime imagination, has much merit. It has, to begin with, been produced with some care and consideration. Atlas Press have sought to reproduce, as far as possible, Roussel’s design for the original French edition of 1932. The top edges of the pages are uncut, and contained within each page – “curtained,” as it were, if you don’t cut the pages; as you should not! – is every one of the fifty-nine illustrations by Henri Achille Zo, just as Roussel intended the reader to view them.
The translation is by Ian Monk (who also acknowledges the assistance of Harry Mathews in the undertaking) and he must be commended for his ambition. There have been a few previous translations of Roussel’s labyrinthine poem, but this is the only one that renders all of its formal aspects, as well as giving us a stylish, outlandish language that could have only one source. Monk’s translation, like the French text, is in rhyming couplets and he has replaced Roussel’s alexandrine line with the English equivalent of iambic pentameter. The poem is in four cantos, each describing the poet’s impression of a scene in Egypt. Yet no “impression” seems essential to the poem; each seems rather to simply offer a pretext for Roussel’s fancy to take flight.
I have characterised Roussel’s poem as labyrinthine and this is an attempt to accurately describe its structure. In his Introduction, Ian Monk offers this summary:

The basic construction of each of the work’s four cantos is the same: a brief “impression of Africa” is interrupted midway by a parenthesis; this new passage is then interrupted by a further parenthesis and so on until a maximum number of five parentheses is reached and they begin to close again. (p.5)

Each parenthesis is the cue for a series of prolonged, elaborate embellishments and digressions on the poet’s original “impression”; they function rather like a link in a hypertext document, in that they take you someplace else. Monk devotes some space to a discussion of the poem’s intricate structure without coming to any definite explanation of how Roussel conceived of it. My own guess, for what it is worth, is that he was trying to recreate the structure of an annotated chess game. Typically, this will contain the moves of the game itself and, within the annotations, variations and sub-variations (which often, incidentally, are set out within parentheses) relating to the moves played. These variations give the thoughts behind the moves, the moves that might have been played but weren’t. Roussel was a keen chess player and a friend of the Polish Grandmaster Xawier Tartakower, and invented a new method of checkmating a lone king with just king, bishop and knight. So he would surely have been familiar with chess literature. It seems important to note here that in chess the moves not played, the “unheard melodies,” are often of greater import than the moves actually made. They may give a better indication of the underlying logic in a game.
Lists are an organising principle for many of the embellishments and digressions in the poem. We are given (and this particular list is not exhaustive) a list of patently absurd propositions that men would not agree to (“In love there’s none that may rival Onan / For skill in offering catch-as-catch-can”); a list of animals that, unlike the peacock, are modest and show virtue enough to rival humankind; a list of poses that various personages and professions might adopt when stood before a camera; a list of what certain people may wonder about at certain times (“The explorer, miles from all that he holds dear, / If his flesh some day won’t provide good cheer”); a list of objects that it would be superfluous to give to certain people; a list of objects or situations that may allow one to perceive a cross; a list of objects that are similar to others except for size (“Loosed, a spent boxing glove, for a football / In flight...”); and finally, a list of contrasting meanings or senses that some words may have. This latter list is interesting for those familiar with Roussel’s use of wordplay – homophony and puns – when composing his works, for it conforms to the first of Jacques Roubaud’s “two principles occasionally observed in Oulipian works.” This states that “a text written in accordance with a restrictive procedure refers to the procedure.” The OuLiPo have always regarded Roussel as a kindred spirit or “anticipatory plagiarist,” as they express it. Indeed, Roubaud’s own The Great Fire of London has a hypertext structure that is similar to New Impressions of Africa.
The experience of reading the poem is taxing and frustrating, but curiously exhilarating. It takes a few readings simply to get a sense of the structure; and one often has the sense of their being, as I suppose there are, a multitude of texts: of immense narratives, of streams of images, all moving forward in parallel. There seems to be something monstrous about the relentlessness of it all, the detail and invention, as though one were eavesdropping on a mind that cannot stop thinking. Ostensibly, the poem is about Africa; but the wildebeests of Roussel’s imagination roam everywhere, provoked by his impressions of that continent.
Yet in another, almost contrasting sense, this poem is the antithesis of Flaubert’s notion of “progression d’effet,” the edict that states that every word set on paper should carry a story forward with ever-accelerating intensity. The function of Roussel’s intricate, elaborate structure (i.e., the use of parentheses) seems to be rather to slow and stall narrative momentum. New Impressions of Africa is the very opposite of a page-turner: often one will remain absorbed on a page, rooted to the spot. Time will become eternal.
This is the work that Queneau was thinking of when he characterised Roussel as having “an imagination that joins the mathematicians’ delirium to the poets’ logic.” Its strict structure somehow allows Roussel’s poetic fancy full reign, frees him to go anywhere, and talk about anything and everything. It is a fancy that is as fecund and fruitful as the continent that gives his poem its title. He gives us a profusion of images that are by turns exquisite, obtuse and banal. He captures forever the incapacity of the human mind to remain silent.

Paul Kane
15 May 2006

Additional Information

Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.