An earthworm plays a zither; actors stage a raucous alternate version of Romeo and Juliet; an obese ballerina collapses in the middle of The Nymph's Dance; lozenges, thrown into the water, dissolve into highly crafted images from antiquity—all in front of a dead ringer for the Paris Stock Exchange.
Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa, out in a new translation from the French by Mark Polizzotti, begins in media res with bizarre machinations: tribal rituals and para-scientific experiments punctuated by extraordinary violence. The events are described coldly, with a relish for the precise physical particularities of the physically impossible.
The second half of Impressions serves to explain the tableau in the first half: uniquely talented European travelers were shipwrecked in Africa and taken captive by King Talou VII, with whom they collaborated on a display of regal power in exchange for their freedom. In telling this story, the narrator offers personal histories of all involved, including Talou VII; every digression yields another explanation of some minor event in the preceding show, rendering the book epically comical in the extent of its symmetries and making it a kind of Thousand and One Nights of shaggy dog stories.
Like Carlo Gesualdo, Roussel was an eccentric aristocrat whose sequestered output proved massively prescient. Impressions alone, with its use of predetermined literary forms, blank-faced description, erotically exaggerated violence, unexpected juxtapositions, and realistically rendered unreality, finds echoes in many different 20th century avant-gardes.
Written in 1910, Impressions seems today as much a Grand Guignol of orientalism as a fun-house mirror for a newly emergent consumer culture. The inventions displayed by the shipwrecked passengers are blatantly cinematic and radiophonic: bright projected light and eerily conjured noises. Admired for its mysterious inwardness, Impressions also suggests an allegorical layer: a society of the spectacle recreating itself in wilderness.