Monday, January 25, 2010

The God Plot: Michel Tournier's The Four Wise Men

The French novelist and children's book author Michel Tournier has a gift for first sentences. Here are three from his novel Gaspar, Melchior et Balthazar, published in English as The Four Wise Men:

1. "I am black, but I am a king." spoken by Gaspar, King of Meroe

2. "I am a king, but I am poor." spoken by Melchior, Prince of Palmyra

3. "Sri Akbar had that ambiguous - half-cajoling, half-ironic - smile on his face as he handed Prince Taor a casket of sandalwood inlaid with ivory."

Like Samuel Beckett (his exact opposite on the color wheel of writers) and St. Augustine of Hippo (blood red to his cool French blue) Tournier writes sentences for their shape as much as for their sound or content. Amalgamated, these shapes make patterns; so the plots of his novels unfold like gigantic placemat-mazes, through which the pencil-line of the reader's attention is shuttled with the heavy-handed direction of a Disneyland tour guide.

Such sculptural control may seem redundant and even condescending to readers used to more open-ended experiments; but a close reading of Tournier's works shows that his formal designs are always matched by a deep interest in how human beings turn their lives into stories. A plotter, he writes about plots with the naturalist's combination of loving eye and muscular mind. He also writes about plotlessness: a perhaps mythical state of mind that has its own flourishes and attractions to even the most single-minded storyteller.

Each of the wise men in Tournier's book is unbalanced: tipped by the tiny flipper of a comma into a mirror-story where what they have is nothing and what they lack is everything. For Gaspar, the black wise man in Brueghel's "The Adoration of the Kings", this lack is called "blondness" - specifically, the blonde hair of two of his slaves. For Melchior (the young King in the picture) it is politics; for Balthasar (the old King) art. Their opening sentences state their problems, summing their lives up and boiling them down at the same time, into a single, unanswerable paradox. Is this how real life works? Maybe, maybe not - but again, I think that, by exaggerating the familiar features of his "hyperrealistic" storytelling (his own words) Tournier is studying something more interesting than it might at first seem. His mimesis is of storytelling itself, not the ancient world. As such, he is more a performer than a representer: a bird of paradise tufting its neck-feathers, rather than a stick insect trying to remain hidden.

The Kings are trapped in plots that even they find stale and unconvincing; but by finding the child Jesus, they are allowed to escape into a story that is bigger, fresher, and more interesting than their own. In the Gospel of Matthew (its only appearance) their visit occupies a mere sixteen verses; Tournier extends it to 158 pages of narrative that might have been written by Jules Verne on a particularly inspired day.

After them comes Taor, Prince of Mangalore. Taor, who does not appear either in the Bible itself, but whose existence Tournier claims to have cobbled together from "the American Pastor Henry Van Dyke, the German Eduard Schaper, and Russian Orthodox legend", is a child of sweetness. He sets out to cross the ocean in search of Turkish delight, a pistachio cube of which is contained in that initial sandalwood box. An "eternal latecomer", he meets the wise men on their way back from the famous manger, rushing onto the scene with the flailing exuberance of a vaudeville comedian making it onstage just as the curtains are being drawn. After they leave, he is gripped with aimlessness and depression. He has missed the climactic scene of his own book, and so finds himself outside the story that he's been hearing about for months now.

But novels, as Milan Kundera said, are what happens on the morning after, and in Taor's case, this is nothing less than a Passion of Salt. He loses everything - slaves, elephants, candy - as he moves further from his goal, and closer to the horrific salt mines of Gomorrah. Tournier, however, in the great tradition of comic inversion, figures this series of losses as a Progress:

"More and more clearly, [Taor] saw his life arranging itself in stages or levels, each showing an evident affinity with those preceding it, but also a surprising originality, at once forboding and sublime. And in each of these levels he was bound to recognize himself. Fascinated, he saw his life metamorphosed into a destiny. For now he was in hell, but hadn't the whole story begun with pistachio nuts? Where was he going? How would it all end?"

Taor's lament here is familiar to any novelist afflicted with the peculiar aimlessness of writers' block; it should be, for Taor at this point is not just a character in, but a writer of his own story. The arrival of Christ has changed things - but how to live inside that change? How to exchange, in other words, the diary of luxury for the novel of belief?

For Tournier, then (as for Nabokov), God is a writer, and Christianity a translation of a text that has become too difficult for us to read in its original language. The sense of every person's life having a personal destiny - a plot with its own distinct stages and trials - is what is added to the world by the translation of a placeless, absent deity into human form. God is now within all of us, even pistachio-obsessed princelets. So the story expands, from a local saga into an epic of worldwide (perhaps unprecedented) proportions.

Tournier's books have been called formally retrograde; but if anything they force us away from nostalgia, and towards deeper thinking about what we mean by progress in literature. A translator when young, he retained the translator's Frankensteinian relationship to literary history. In his autobiography, The Wind Spirit, he writes, "Literary and artistic creation are important because myths, like all living things, must be irrigated and replenished or die." In The Four Wise Men, he shows us one way that this can be done.

Image: Pieter Breughel's The Reverence of the Three Wise Men

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