by Michel Tournier (1970)
It’s a rare thing to open a book and encounter a voice so original and commanding that you at once know it will be one of the most memorable stories you’ve ever read. Thus opens The Ogre, with the perverse journaling of the titular Abel Tiffauges, uttering things so bizarre and disturbing that you’re at once repulsed and captivated to continue reading. Even the typeface, at least in my edition, contributes to the feeling — the letters are ever-so-slightly off-center, so that certain letters drop below the line and others lift minutely above it, creating a disorganized, off-kilter feeling that reflects the unbalanced mind into which you are seeing.
This book screams out for a comparison with Par Lagerkvist’s similarly disturbing and innovative The Dwarf (see my review): both protagonists are misanthropic outcasts with delusions of grandeur and a strong link to European mythology. Both are told in large part in first person. The similarities mostly end there, and I would probably recommend Dwarf over Ogre if I had to choose one, because it felt more accessible and less of an investment, in addition to being written first. For those who liked Dwarf, however, this one is a logical next step. (It also brought to mind Journey to the End of the Night.)
The strengths of this book are its prose and its themes. Though more ornate than I usually like, Tournier avoids sounding pretentious; you get the feeling he has dominion over his esoteric language and it’s not forced at all. His imagery is wonderful and the similes, metaphors and symbolism are thick without being too distracting. He does have a mildly disturbing attraction to describing genitalia and buttocks, but in context this is a small complaint.
The thematic elements are where this book really finds its power, because the book is at heart a creation myth of a modern-day ogre, drawing upon all the ancient lore as we follow Abel over the course of his transformation and, ultimately, the consummation of his destiny. Except our ogre doesn’t literally feed on children as the fairy tale versions do, he feeds on them spiritually, and without doing them lasting damage.
In that sense I love how Tournier subverts our general feelings toward the term and the myths in order to provide a realistic, strangely flattering example of how an ogre would look in the 20th century. Doing so against the backdrop of the Nazi regime provides ample opportunity for scathing historical commentary as well. And in his gradual transformation, Abel’s fulfillment, one by one, of each ogre characteristic feels so organic as to almost transcend its allegorical framework.
I say “almost” transcend because it doesn’t ultimately move beyond a really intriguing allegory. There’s little overt plot and I was puzzled as to where the story was meandering, especially in the second half. Tournier’s various asides, though usually captivating and well-written, started to feel indulgent. Also, the shift from Abel’s first-person journals to 3rd-person omniscient after the 1/3 mark was jarring and vaguely unsatisfactory (due primarily to the exceptional success of the first third). I was happy to see a return of the journal device in the last third, but by that time the riveting momentum had been lost. The powerful ending — its momentum building in the last 30-40 pages, its symbolism, etc. — went a long way toward redeeming the tepid 2nd half.
All in all, it’s a powerful character study about an injured soul seeking to defend his ideals of purity and innocence amid absolute corruption. There’s a definite Catcher in the Rye feel, with Abel’s desire to protect these children, though Tournier elevates the theme (or sinks it, depending on your perspective) to an entirely different level of derangement with more substance and complexity. The deficiency is that despite it being a character study, there’s no real way for a reader to relate to an allegorical figure, so it’s difficult to care about Abel’s travails. You’re only there to bear witness, not to sympathize.
But still, it’s a powerful novel that I would recommend to any fan of literary fiction or of the other books I’ve named in this review. It’s worth reading just to see something extraordinary. And I do plan on seeking out more of Tournier’s work.