Three by Perec is a collection of three novellas written by the outstanding French novelist Georges Perec, translated by Ian Monk, and published David R. Godine. For the purposes of this review I will focus on the first novella in the collection, `Which Moped with Chome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard?'
For those who are unfamiliar with Georges Perec (1936-1982), he is one of the most amazing writers of the 20th century, author of Life: A User's Manual, a 500 page masterpiece of many levels that can be viewed in terms of an intricate jigsaw puzzle (puzzles being one of Perec's passions), A Void, a 300 page novel written without using the letter `e', and a number of other literary jewels, including not only novels but stories, essays, scripts, plays, reviews and collections of crossword puzzles. At certain times, one is reminded of the writing of Raymond Queneau or Vladimir Nabokov.
So, looking at `Which Moped with Chome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard?', the storyline is as simple as simple can be: One Sergeant Henri Pollak divides his time between sergeantly military life in Vincennes and bohemian civilian life in Montparnasse, living among his books, girlfriend and mates, one of his mates being the narrator of the tale. When a buck private by the name of Karamanlis or Karawak or Karawash or Karapet (or a dozen other similar names used by the narrator) is called up to go fight in Algeria, he asks Henri Pollak to run over his foot with a truck so as to escape combat. Henri vacillates and, in turn, asks his mates for help. The story moves from there.
But the author gives us much, much more than a simple story line. Starting with the novella's first word and not letting up until the last period, Georges Perec bids us join him in his game of linguistic and narrative whimsy, moving from commonly spoken words to more arcane and obscure vocabulary, words such as loxodromic, metaphormose, ventripotent, cavil, saucisson, quincunex, misopaedist and hexastich. And what applies to words also applies to turns of phrases, sentence structure, syntax and most other forms of language - mix and match, all written with the lightest of touches.
Here is another example of Perec's agile touch: Midway through the novella, the narrator speaks directly to the reader, "Any reader who wishes to take a break here can. We have, my word, come to what the best authors (Jules Sandeau, Victor Margueritte, Henri Lavedan, even Alain Robbe-Grillet in his latest, Lenten Christmas) call a natural turning point." Fortunately, the reader is having so much fun no break is really needed.
But the story also has a serious undertone. Why pack off to a war in Algeria, a war that is questionable and perhaps absurd? With the mention of Algeria and a suggestion of absurdity there is a hint of Albert Camus and existentialism. However, this being the case, there isn't a trace of the hard-boiled writing style found in `The Stranger'; rather, the author engages a subject with serious political and philosophic implications with, again, lightness and agility.
This novella doesn't end with the last sentence; rather, to add a tasty icing to the cake, the author has created an Index with over 150 listings. And for a dash more whimsy, `Index' is the first word in the sentence: "Index of the ornamentations and flowers of rhetric or, to be more precise, of the metabolas and parataxes which the author believes he has identified in the text which you have just read." As an example of the listings, here are words starting with `L': Lambdacism, Leptology, Litotes, Logodiarrhe and words starting with the letter O': Onamatopoeia, Oratio obliqua, Otiose epitet, Oxymoron. Then the index stops at the letter `P' with a simple -- etc, etc, etc - offering the reader an occasion to create one's own list with `Q' to `Z' words. Thank you, Georges, for your invitation to join the game of language as endless discovery and delight.