Sunday, 18 April 2010

Head-hopping with Sartre

Before I went to Ethiopia for two months, I wrote in my travel blog that I was searching for the perfect travel book. It had to be a thick yet compact paperback, challenging but not dense, and something I give away knowing I could find another copy. I settled on The Reprieve by Jean-Paul Sartre.

I found it a very interesting read and also an object lesson on how to break the rules of fiction, much like Twilight World by Poul Anderson.

The Reprieve follows the story of several people in France in the days leading up to World War Two. They come from a variety of backgrounds: an angsty teenaged poet, a supressed homosexual with a wife and child, a paralyzed veteran from the First World War, an illiterate laborer who doesn't know he's been drafted, and many more. We watch their daily lives slowly change with the realization that war is inevitable, and that nothing will be the same again.

Each individual story is interesting enough, but they are hard to follow because Sartre constantly hops from one story line to another--in the same page, the same paragraph, sometimes in the same sentence. A character can say something and be answered by another character in a different story line who happens to be having a similar conversation!

Editors call this "head hopping" and it will usually get a manuscript rejected because readers find it confusing. And it is confusing, but in the hands of a master like Sartre the confusion resolves itself into a bigger picture. Sartre jumps from character to character because their individual stories are of secondary importance. He combines these stories together to create a greater story, that of France in its last days before defeat and occupation. The portrait he paints of France is one of a decadent, out-of-touch nation. Each individual tale shows its characters lacking in some way, lacking in a way that when added up with millions of other Frenchmen, makes defeat inevitable. It's a powerful novel and the only one I know where such rampant head hopping has actually strengthened the story.

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