Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel

I’m not sure that I really should be thinking of an X-Files episode when reading one of the books on our list, but given how often the beginning of that show was actually the end, I can’t help myself. Of course, the similarity to Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel ends there.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Ben Marcus.)

I mean, the first half of the novel is this odd pageant sequence. Part performance, part execution, part ritual, part coronation, part scientific demonstration, part a few other things, the stream of marvels seems inexplicable in its dreamlike combination of concepts and fluidity of shifting forms:

In a loud voice, the monarch began to read the native text, written in hieroglyphics on the sheet of parchment which stood in the middle of the narrow table.

It was a kind of bull, whereby Talu, already Emperor of Ponukele, by virtue of his religious powers consecrated himself King of Drelshkaf.

Having delivered the proclamation, the sovereign took the cruet which was intended to represent the holy ampulla and, turning sideways, spread the oil over the top part of his hand in order to smear it on his forehead with his fingertips.

*****

Rao brandished his axe with both hands and struck the traitor’s neck three times. With the last blow, his head rolled to the ground.

The spot remained unstained by any crimson splashes, on account of the curious wooden blade which, as it cut through the flesh, had the effect of immediately congealing the blood, and absorbed even the first drops whose loss could not be avoided.

*****

The magpie ended this performance of its own accord and, with a few flaps of its wings, reached the bust of Immanuel Kant; on top of the stand, to the left, was a little perch on which the bird landed.

Immediately, a strong light illuminated the skull from within, and the casing, which was excessively thin, became completely transparent from the line of the eyebrows upwards.

One divined the presence of countless reflectors, placed facing in every direction inside the head. So great was the violence with which the bright rays, representing the fires of genius, escaped from their incandescent source.

Repeatedly the magpie took flight, to return immediately to its perch, thus constantly extinguishing and relighting the cranial dome, which alone burned with a thousand lights, while the face, the ears and the nape of the neck remained in darkness. Each time the bird’s weight was applied to the lever, it seemed as though some transparent idea was born in the thinker’s brain, as it blazed suddenly with light.

*****

The gala performance then began.

First the four Bucharessas brothers made their appearance, each wearing an acrobat’s costume of pink jersey and black velvet shorts.

The two eldest brothers, Hector and Tommy, both adolescents full of supple strength, each carried six dark rubber balls in a strong drum; they walked away in opposite directions, then, turning round to face each other, halted at two points a considerable distance apart.

The latter half, however, explains what the heck has been going on in the first part.

The highly European influence is explained by (other than the fact that the author was a notorious eccentric who almost never left his stateroom or hotel during his tours of the world) the fact that many of the characters were shipwrecked in Africa while on a ship from Europe to the Americas. Apparently, the African monarch has just managed to overcome a neighboring kingdom ruled by a bitterly feuding relative, as well as overcome multiple betrayal plots. The Europeans decide to put on a show of marvels, and the Emperor decides to mix it with his coronation concerning the conquered kingdom as well as the executions of his enemies.

However, you don’t even start to get clued into that until halfway through the book and it takes until the end of the book to finish explaining. Until you get to that point, it’s just an incomprehensible show switching from improbably thing to improbable thing, mixing in all sorts of bizarre happenings in a seemingly haphazard fashion.

I read that though Roussel was not technically part of the surrealist movement, he is looked on as one of the most important surrealists. Apparently, he heavily used automatic writing and private allusion. That explains Impressions of Africa a bit, or at least it seems that way to me. I wonder if he wrote down whatever images came into his head for the first part and then sat down to try to see if he could make a story that somehow made sense of it. If that’s what he was doing, he pulled it off.

Now, whether or not I’m way off the mark on that, I do have to say that Impressions of Africa is pretty readable for a surrealist work. It’s a little disjointed, without any real linear plot, for 150 pages or so, but that just means the reader has to sit and enjoy a show for a while. Roussel does eventually connect it to a plot, but it isn’t like he had to. It was fun reading anyway.

Regardless, Impressions of Africa is a strange but fun book. I found it hard to believe that the author was a contemporary of Proust. Impressions of Africa is definitely worth a look if you can hold on long enough for things to make sense, or are flexible enough not to demand that sense has to be made.

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