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Jacques Roubaud: L’Enlèvement d’Hortense (Hortense is Abducted)

Jacques Roubaud was associated with the Oulipo movement so you know this book is not going to be a conventional novel and, indeed, it is not. It is nominally a detective story. Inspector Blognard and his assistant, Arapède, have just finished a case, investigating who broke a vase. They are now called out to a murder. We know a little bit about the murder, as both we (The Reader) and the narrator are characters in the book. Roubaud not only puts himself in as the omniscient narrator but also puts in himself as a character and has the reader as a character, though only one reader, to represent all readers. We (reader and narrator) are invisible, except when the narrator-as-character appears, so we cannot be seen but we can influence the action, e.g. by inadvertently leaving the door open, as we do. The action takes place by the Poldevan Chapel, near the Saint-Gudule Church in Large Eiderdowns Street. (Note the translations are mine from the original French; they may not be exactly the same as used in the English text.) In what country? That is not sure, though Roubaud is at pains to tell us in the opening sentence that it is not Belgium. We know that that it is near Poldevia and the people seem to speak French. We follow the victim at night as he approaches the Chapel. He is afraid. In particular, he is afraid of the cat called Alexander Vladimirovich. He tries to make the sanctuary of the Chapel but he is too late.

Following time-honoured detective tales, Blognard, while winding up the Case of the Broken Vase, is phoned up by his demanding and pompous superior and sent to investigate the murder. Inevitably, there is something of a build-up – the weeping woman who found the body (she is the local grocer), the expectant crowd, when Blognard and Arapète arrive, and the pathologist examining the body and giving his laconic though only approximate time of death. It is not for some time do we learn who the victim is – the priest’s dog. And, then at this point, Roubaud sets off on one of his many tangents. We are introduced to the eponymous Hortense and her friend Laurie, accompanying the grieving priest and we follow their tales and then the tale of Laurie’s daughter, Carlotta and her friend, Eugénie. Roubaud starts to come into his own, playing game after game with us and his characters. He has several exchanges of correspondence with his publisher, who censors him (to his disgust), who dares to promote books other than Roubaud’s and who does not adopt Roubaud’s plans for the sale of Roubaud’s previous book. He even puts in his thanks into the corpus of the book, before it has ended, just to make sure he gets them in. He throws in literary references, particularly to Flaubert and Madame Bovary and to Baudelaire’s hypocritical reader as well as to current events. Animals seem able to communicate with humans not in a Disneyesque or even Doctor Doolittle sort of way but just, somehow, getting their feelings across. Cats, dogs, ponies and even snails give their opinions. Pop groups are mocked. We have two rival ones – Dew-Pon-Dew-Val (clearly a play on words, as their name sounds like Dupont-Duval, two very common French surnames) and Hi Hi, with the rivalry of the fans, matching rivals of two opposing football teams. There are a pair of twins, who have different mothers and fathers. There is Mme Yvonne, owner of the local café whose favourite subject was infinity and who questioned all potential new employees on their views on this subject. Roubaud is a mathematician and this gives him a chance to speculate on infinity.

Of course, the detective story pops up every now and then. Blognard, as all good detectives, tries to think not like the criminal but like the victim, apparently the key to discovering the culprit. Blognard even has his scribe, his Dr Watson, who marries Hortense but she is put off by his fervent jealousy. The pair are joined by the Poldovian detective, Sheralockiszyku Holamesidjudjy, whose name changes as we go along. The problem is that he only speaks Poldovian, which makes communication difficult. Of course, once Hortense is abducted, the two plot lines converge and Blognard, who claims that he knew all along who did it, gives his views of the crimes which, inevitably, do not follow the standard detective book course of events.

We also get Roubaud’s advice on how to write a good novel. A writer must read and must live life. The problem is how much should the author do of each one and in what proportion? The problem was that while Roubaud was reading and living, the novel was changing and, of course, he has fun with that as well. Finally, he decided to forget about reading and living and to start writing and that is just what he did. Indeed, he claims that, as he has no imagination, he has simply written down what happened. Finally, he admits that his novel, like all contemporary French novels, is merely a copy of Gone With The Wind. However, he does propose a solution to his publisher. Every book should have divergent plots so that, ultimately, each copy of an author’s book would be different. When a reader went to a book shop to buy the book, the book shop would produce one from a computer, which would be unique to that reader. However, Roubaud manages to give us enough divergent plot lines here, without requiring a special book.

This book is great fun and a complete subversion of the standard novel form. While we may all enjoy the more or less standard novel form, it is a good idea for people like Roubaud and his fellow Oulipians to come along and shake it up now and then. We should not get too comfortable with the novel any more than we should get too comfortable with life. Roubaud was clearly enjoying himself when writing this novel and, if we take it in the right frame of mind, we should enjoy it, too. Amazingly, enough, thanks to the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press, it is available in English.

Publishing history

First published in French 1987 by Ramsay
First published in English 1989 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Dominic Di Bernardi