BOOKS REVIEW : Scornful lions and Milton On His Glaucoma

A VOID George Perec trans. Gilbert Adair Harvill, £15.99

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Goggle-eyed and dishevelled, looking like a cross between Gustav Mahler, John the Baptist and Ken Dodd, George Perec inhabited those ancient fault lines of playfulness and subversion zigzagging across the ordered surface of French literature. Dur ing hisshort life (he died aged 46 in 1982) he apparently aimed at encompassing every known form of literary invention without repeating himself, and even managed to devise a few arresting variants of his own.

One of these was La Disparition, published in 1969. Trying to encompass the experience of losing both his parents to the Holocaust and to render that same horror in terms involving official silence and suppression, the author devised a novel whose very essence derived from an act of extinction. The letter "e", normally indispensable to French writers, whether in the formation of feminine substantives or the making of past participles, disappears altogether from the text, and an entire narrative, full ofcomplex digressions, booby traps and sideshows, is created on the basis of this resonant absence. The sound we are invited to listen for, reverberating within the well, is that of the object pronoun "eux" - "them", the dead father and mother, though this novel is not so much their memorial as their exorcism.

Armed with such wisdom after the event, we are in a better position than some of Perec's original readers to test the wider implications of the book's narrative form, that of a detective thriller, the roman policier. Amid pillage and murder, provincial lynch law and suburban pogroms, Anton Vowl, haunted by his "vision of a cryptic witchcraft, of a void, a thing unsaid, a mission or an omission, both all-knowing and knowing nothing at all", mysteriously fades from view, more or less at the same time as t he book's fifth chapter, replaced by an incantatory nonsense poem compiled of miscellaneous "Pardons" for the missing man.

It is not spoiling the impact of this maddening yet always engrossing literary construction if I say that Vowl never reappears. His legacy to the other characters is a curse which ordains that they, too, will be rubbed out in various specifically horrible ways.

Augustus B Clifford shuffles off his mortal coil, for all the world like a "body" in Agatha Christie, on a drawing-room carpet, a ghastly rictus contorting his lips. Olga Mavrokhordatos, preparing to cook a pet carp "with a light pot-pourri of garlic, tarragon, paprika, cumin and saffron", enters the death struggle as she slices the fish in two and discovers it has swallowed a gold ring. The hapless Ottavio Ottaviani is finished off through being made to read aloud a morsel of sinister gobbledegook ("Poor scornful lions slink out, scrutinising dingos with scornful looks") not merely e-less but lacking a's besides.

Reading A Void, or at any rate trying to read it, is a bit like a walk through the pleasure grounds of an 18th-century mansion. The shell grottoes, wilderness, quincunxes and parterres of Perec's ingenuity are so successfully distracting that we might easily lose sight of the book's more insidious underlying design. Add to this the dazzling tightrope acts performed by the translator and the process of bamboozlement becomes a thoroughly pleasurable experience.

Adair's is an astonishing achievement; you can feel him positively dancing with exultation at outfoxing Perec in the subtlety of his transpositions. He magisterially ignores the protocol which assigns perpetual second-footman status to translators. Rend

e rings of Poe's "The Raven" as "Black Bird" and a certain celebrated soliloquy by "Shakspar" as "Living or Not Living", let alone a sublime Miltonian transmutation into "On His Glaucoma", deserve instant anthologising.

Perec's book, with all its subtexts and nuances and the ghoulish persistence of a lurking horror in the midst of verbal tricksiness, is absorbing enough. His formidably proficient Angliciser, in remaining faithful to the essence of the text, has created

an independent work, both enabling and rivalling its original.

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