(Archipelago Books, 2012)
Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times is meditative, radical, and humorous. This is a compliment to both Chevillard and translator Alyson Waters. The first-person narrator is a guide and guard at a preserved historical site, the Pales Caves—or so he tells the reader. Each chapter, none of which is longer than four pages, accelerates his unraveling, which Chevillard manages nimbly against the solid, timeless backdrop of the caves. “We know in fact that caves are conducive to hallucinations—angels would be better off in them than bears,” the narrator says. Thus 130 pages of heavy introspection and minimal action fly by.
Practically every page contains an original thought or witticism about childhood, art, evolution, death; Chevillard has creatively fashioned a philosopher out of a disoriented, uniformed guide at an archeological site who is both careful and impish with words: “The advent of writing is considered to be what marks the end of prehistoric times; in brief, prehistory comes to an end when the story begins.” But, “Perhaps, if you think about it, digression really is the shortest distance between two points, the straight line being so very congested,” and the narrator winds the reader through labyrinthian thought experiments. He discusses human fear and human expression: “It’s not the writer who’s afraid of the blank page, it’s the lousy painter he has repressed who thinks he is being called upon, good lord!”
The sentences, like the caves’ tunnels, take playful twists and turns: “Here is it. We can get going. Next page. Stay behind me in a group. We’re turning.” Or, after an anecdote: “but I only opened this parenthesis so I could wind up here, and here I am, so I’m slamming it shut.” Having taken over after a previous guide’s death, the narrator is reluctant to re-open the cave to tourists, and gleans as much from the keys he has been entrusted with. “If you ask me, a key like this is a key that bolts the door and throws away the key.”
The tunnels in Prehistoric Times echo with the footsteps and wonder of Charles Kinbote from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, also a first-person narrator who undergoes a metamorphosis with each page turned. Chevillard seems to be directly responding to Nabokov’s approach to life with the observation that “Man’s relation to the world changes the moment his imagination comes into play, it changes completely.” Kinbote’s journey through Zembla mirrors Chevillard’s narrator’s excursions deeper into the caves.
Pale Fire ends unpredictably, Kinbote laughing at the reader in the last lines. In Prehistoric Times, the narrator’s complaint that he is “a lousy storyteller concerned only with beginnings, originals, genealogies, etymologies, and continually postponing the start of his story” is successfully upturned. Chevillard delivers a similarly jarring ending, a final commentary on where he thinks humanity is headed. Prehistoric Times isa must-read.