The Tyrant, By Jacques Chessex, trans. Martin Sokolinsky

Jane Jakeman
Thursday 05 April 2012 16:12
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This extraordinary work is a lean, modern narrative that recalls Samuel Butler's Victorian study of parental tyranny, The Way of All Flesh. It scrutinises the irredeemable effects of a monstrous father on an emotional child and becomes a study of the damaged adult. But it is far from being a clinical analysis: an intense sequence of evocations creates the terrifying figure of the late Doctor Calmet, an imposing figure in a small Swiss town.

Calmet is not a chilly rod-wielding puritan like Butler's Theodore Pontifex, but a man of immense energy and will-power. His huge presence dominates his family, crushes his wife and ultimately alienates or destroys his children, including his youngest, Jacques, whose story this is.

The book begins after the tyrant's death when his family have to make a decision without him: how to dispose of his mortal remains. Cremation gives Jacques a sense of deliverance. Yet he is still haunted by that all-powerful figure, and racked by ambivalent feelings towards his mother who has allowed her children to be tortured by her "lord and master".

Episodes of infantile powerlessness overcome Jacques in his adult career as a schoolteacher and in his love affair with the mercurial and unfaithful Therese. Recollections of childhood "games", such as his father holding a knife to the little boy's throat, of his father's rages and his sexual potency, intervene in Jacques's attempts to engage with the world outside. The Director of the school where he teaches is a terrifying father-figure, and one of his pupils a rival whose traces he discovers in his lover's room.

Outside is the liberated world of the 1960s, while within Jacques's mind is a tormented sequence of fears and fantasies. He has conversations with animals, and finds their world less destructive than humans', observing the natural relationships between parent and offspring among cats or bears.

Conscious though Jacques is of the rich natural world – and the Jura landscape is lovingly and lyrically described – it is not enough to save him from the consequences of victimhood. He spirals into despair, losing Therese, and takes up with a neo-Nazi whom he loathes while somehow under the spell cast by the imagery of the Waffen SS. When he reaches the point where he insults a Jewish acquaintance, he is overcome by self-disgust.

Published in French in 1973, the book in its richness of language and intensity of feeling won Chessex the Prix Goncourt. Those qualities are powerfully apparent in Martin Sokolinsky's translation. The Tyrant can certainly stand beside Butler's classic.

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