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Whose mind am I in?

December 28, 2010 9 comments

La Danse de Gengis Cohn, by Romain Gary. (English version : The Dance of Gengis Cohn).

 La Danse de Gengis Cohn is one of the few books by Romain Gary I had not read. It was written in French in 1966 and then translated in English in 1968. Two reasons led me to read it now. On the one hand, Nancy Huston recently wrote a fascinating article comparing the English and the French versions of this book and explaining Gary’s vision on translation. She says one could write a PhD thesis on the comparison between the English and French versions Gary made of some of his books. On the other hand, Myriam Anisimov, Gary’s French biographer, declared it was her favourite book by Gary. She also pointed out that this one forecast Emile Ajar’s style. I thought I had missed something there.

La Danse de Gengis Cohn is difficult to sum up. The narrator, Gengis Cohn, is a dibbuk, that is to say an evil spirit that haunt people in the Jewish tradition. Gengis Cohn is currently haunting the subconscious of Schatz, the former SS officer who shot him. Here is how Schatz sees him:

Je porte un manteau noir très long, par dessus mon pyjama rayé et, sur le manteau, côté coeur, l’étoile jaune réglementaire. Je suis, je le sais, très pâle – on a beau être courageux, les mitraillettes des SS braquées sur vous et le commandement Feuer! ça vous fait tout de même quelque chose – et je suis couvert de plâtre des pieds à la tête, manteau, nez, cheveux et tout. I’m wearing a very long black coat, over my striped pyjamas, and on the coat, on the side of the heart, the prescribed yellow star. I am, I am aware of that, very pale – you can be as brave as may be, the Tommy guns of the SS pointed on you and the order ‘Feuer!’, it does do something to you – and I’m covered with plaster from head to toe, coat, nose, hair and everything.

We are in 1966, in Schatz’s office, who is now a policeman. The biggest case of his career falls down on him. Men get killed in the Forest of Geist. At the beginning of the novel, already twenty-two men have been murdered and all corpses were found naked with an ecstatic grin on their face. They died happy, after climax. Schatz quickly understands they were all murdered by an eunuch named Florian after the victims have tried to sexually satisfy a frigid woman named Lily. The second part of the novel takes place in the Forest of Geist, where Schatz, always accompanied by Cohn, is searching Florian and Lily.

The reader soon comes to understand that Florian and Lily are allegories personifying Death and Life/Humanity. In the foreword, Gary claims that this book is in the tradition of picaresque novels. I can’t tell if he has achieved his goal, I know nothing of this area of literature. (It never tempted me, but I’m open to suggestions)

I think this is the most Jewish book Gary ever wrote. It is full of yiddish words and Cohn is a former comical artist who used to perform a one man show in a cabaret in Warsaw named the Schwarze Schickse. The way Cohn colonizes Schatz’s mind is truly hilarious. Gary is usually a funny writer but this is pure black humour. For example, Schatz never uses soap because you never know who is in it! (on ne sait jamais qui est dedans!)

A word about the names. Schatz is a love word in German, like darling or sweetheart. So when Cohn calls him Schatzchen, it is as if he called him Sweetie. Geist means ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’. The Forest of Geist is at the same time the forest of dead people – slaughters happened there – and the forest of the human mind. The Forest of Geist is the subconscious of humanity. It is located near a village named Licht, which means Light. It is probably a reference to the century of the Enlightenment and to Goethe’s last words ‘Mehr Licht’, (More light).

The substance of the book is triple. The first point is to talk about the Holocaust. Gary lost relatives in camps and this book was written just after a visit to Warsaw with Jean Seberg. Nancy Huston explains in her article that Gary would have fainted during this visit and remained unconscious during three hours. This book was a necessity for him as he was haunted by the Holocaust, as a Jewish and as a humanist. This novel is an exorcism for him. Sometimes, he intervenes in the novel, like when he says:

Ma place était là-bas, avec eux. C’est curieux: il y a des Juifs qui mourront avec le sentiment d’avoir échappé à la mort. My place was there, with them. It’s strange: some Jewish people will die under the impression they have escaped to death.

Through Gengis Cohn, he questions what happened and how humanity and society cope with it. It was written in 1966 and the subject had been a taboo in France. Gary chose to have Cohn haunting a former SS but he could have chosen a Gestapo member instead.

Which leads us to the second big idea of the book. Gary struggled to understand how humanity created La Joconde and Botticelli’s paintings as well as gaz chambers. This issue is in the background of his whole work: how Humanity includes inhumanity.

On peut être un salopard et goûter la poésie. One can be a scoundrel and appreciate poetry.

He was also convinced that humanity had yet to be created, that it is an ideal that we, human, haven’t reached yet.

 And the third underlying question is how artists manage to create beauty from the horror, like Picasso with Guernica or Goya with The Disasters of War, for example. Here are Lily and Florian talking:

– Qu’est-ce qu’il est venu faire dans le Ghetto de Varsovie?- Oublier ma chérie. Il en fera sûrement un livre, c’est leur façon de se débarrasser de ce qui les gêne.- Il est mignon.

– Mais puisque je te dis que c’est un écrivain, ma chérie. Ils s’en tirent toujours avec un livre.

“What’s he come to the Warsaw ghetto for?“Blood and tears, luv. He’s looking for material.”“In such a filthy place?”

“That’s nothing compared to his subconscious, peach. A writer’s subconscious is one of the filthiest places there are: as a matter of fact, you can find the whole world there.”

“Phui!”

“I know. Writers are born shit-eaters, luv, then they use the filth, the horror, and the shame they’ve eaten to present you with some more literature, peach.”

The English quote comes from the English version of the book. That’s why it is not the exact translation of the French quote. (If anyone is interested by the literal translation, please ask in the comments, I’ll translate it). It’s also more aggressive.

In the end, the reader wonders where he is. Are Schatz and Cohn haunting a writer’s mind, which is in fact that Forest of Geist?

 The Dance of Gengis Cohn is not my favourite novel by Gary. The idea of a Jewish dibbuk haunting the mind of the SS who killed him and playing him funny tricks is good. The thoughts on creation are interesting. However, I was not convinced by the form of the novel. It is full of life, despite the depressing theme. It is a firework, an explosion of words, ideas, images, references. It would have needed editing. I lost his train of thoughts and would have appreciated a more orderly thinking.

 For those who have never read Gary, I don’t think it’s a good way to start with his work. You need to know his way of thinking to fully appreciate it. La Danse de Gengis Cohn is for fans only.

 A last word about the quotes. I translated all the quotes, except for the last one. I translated literally, which is a betrayal to Gary’s vision on translations. Indeed, he used to adapt his work to his Anglophone public. He used to modify the cultural French references to American ones in the English versions. His point was to have his public understand what he wanted to say. As he liked to hide serious issues under jokes – witz in yiddish – and as he knew each culture has his own comical references, he wanted to adapt. He thought HE had to adapt, not the reader, aware as he was, that humanity is diversity.

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