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Pierrot Mon Ami by Raymond Queneau

Queneau, Raymond. Pierrot Mon Ami (1942). Translated from the French by Barbara Wright. Dalkey Archive, 1989.

Calling an author sui generis is a cliché, but in the case of Raymond Queneau it is nothing but the truth. Pierrot Mon Ami, his eighth novel, is a fine introduction to the particular style of this French polymath.

Pierrot, a young man of twenty-eight, starts out with a new job at the “Palace of Fun” in Uni Park (an amusement park based on Paris’ Luna Park) helping women off a moving obstacle and holding them over a air vent which blows up their skirts for the delight of the “philosophers” who pay to watch the spectacle. He quickly loses the job after an incident involving the boss, his daughter, and bumper cars. From there, across the few days that encompass the majority of the novel, Pierrot works as an assistant to a fakir, delivers animals for a zoo, and passes through a string of events that compromise a sort of mystery-detective story about identity and the past.

It’s hard to sum up the plot of this novel, as what amounts to the plot here is a number of events banal in appearance but more mysterious on closer look. Coincidences pile up and bring events and characters together. Pierrot, no detective he, passes the time playing pinball and trying to think of nothing (“better than not thinking”), maintaining a decidedly cheerful disposition in the face of unemployment and lost love.

There is a hidden mystery to the background events of the novel. Confusions of names and identities proliferate, unhelped by Queneau’s insistence of giving almost every character a name that begins with either a P or an M (the jury’s still out on the meaning of that). The identities of some of the characters are left doubtful. A mysterious Poldavian prince is perhaps the same individual as an animal trainer who himself is known by at least three other names and is a former singer and lover of the mistress of the owner of the Uni Park. The Uni Park goes up in flames and while many suspects present themselves, no one is ever attached to the deed. As Pierrot realizes at the end of the book:

“…he saw clearly how all its [the preceding events] constituent elements could have been combined into an adventure that might have developed into a mystery, later to be solved like a problem in algebra in which there are as many equations as unknowns, and he saw how it had not turned out like that.” (148)

Queneau takes the mystery and turns it around so that we see the back of it, never getting enough information and never finding anyone (except ourselves) interested in the solution. Pierrot walks through a world without conclusions and he does it happily.

Many of the characters muse on the past but find it hard to remember all the same, while others seem to barely remember the present (the love of Pierrot’s life seems unable to remember him without prompting). Forgetting and the vagaries of memory offer constant topics of conversation to all but Pierrot who remembers but seems unconcerned by his past.

Throughout, what really makes the book a joy to read is Queneau’s (and in this case the superb translation work of Barbara Wright) style. He mixes the most colloquial of language, the dialogue and speech habits of the common man, with words that will send the most well-read individual to the dictionary. He plays in a thesaurus of synonyms (Pierrot’s glasses are glasses, cheaters, spectacles, gig-lamps, etc.). Also far from insignificant is the humor: Queneau is very funny. Comedy abounds in the dialogue, narration, and slapstick situations.

Queneau’s work is hard to describe, it just has to be read and enjoyed. Whenever I find myself with reader’s block, unsure of what I want to read next and putting down with disappointment anything I pick up, Queneau is like a palate cleanser for me. His novels help me recall the joy of language and storytelling and the potential for literature to be polymorphous, crossing genres, high and lo, philosophy and comedy.

[This review originally appeared March 16, 2005 on Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading. Now found at The Quarterly Conversation.]