Of all the books to predictably trickle onto the French books market in the wake of Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 Prix Goncourt win for La Carte et le territoire (just published in a fine English translation by Gavin Bowd as The Map and the Territory), they won’t come much stranger than this.
The cover of En Patagonie avec Michel Houellebecq sees the name of the novelist loom, perhaps inevitably, larger than that of its author, Brazilian writer and journalist Juremir Machado da Silva. In 2007, Machada, who has translated Houellebecq’s Les Particules élémentaires and Extension du domaine de la lutte into Portuguese for the South American market, was joined by his wife and the French novelist for a short trip south to Patagonia. This book, part travelogue and part compendium of dialogues between the author and translator is presented as a testimony to that trip. The result is not a little confusing.
The public image of Houellebecq doesn’t necessarily sit comfortably with that of Patagonia, indeed with that of a jolly holiday break. What would a famously urban, nature-detesting and tourism-scorning writer be doing in a place famous for its wildlife and unspoiled natural beauty? Equally, why would a couple, keen for a break in the wilds invite along the famously misanthropic, and sexually notorious Houellebecq who they don’t seem to know particularly well?
The former actually makes more sense than the latter, if only poetically. Whilst Houellebecq is a writer who deals with extremity (transgressive sex, death, cults, racist and misogynistic opinions abound in his work), Patagonia is, if you believe the marketing speak, commonly held to be at the extreme ‘end of the world’. Exactly why the Machados felt the need to share their holiday with Houellebecq, however, is never adequately addressed. There are a couple of limp-wristed attempts to interview the French writer on film, but they never reveal anything particularly meaty. The Brazilians themselves frequently seem as bemused as the rest of us as to why they’ve come on holiday with a ‘smutty’ French writer.
Equally perplexing is who would actually want to read this book, aside from the growing army of hardcore Houellebecqians. Those with a passing interest in Houellebecq and his fiction are already well served by a growing range of publications in French on the man and his work. Those looking for a deeper knowledge of the author in English are at present only served by John McCann’s scholarly work on his novels ‘Michel Houellebecq: Author of Our Times’.
Machado’s work, however, only distinguishes itself from what already exists on the author by virtue of its downright oddity rather than its shining insight. There is a splattering of anecdotes that might temporarily turn the readers befuddlement into light amusement; Houellebecq’s recurrent inability to close the zipper on his coat (and the motherly way he is assisted by Machado’s wife), the revelation that author prefers penguins to sea lions (they set a bad example to tourists) and the way all his conversations are punctuated with a long, pondering ‘Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm’.
But beyond this, there is little to capture the attention of all but the most hardcore Houellebecq aficionados. The ‘philosophical discussons’ the author has with Machado have been more interestingly elaborated elsewere (often in the novelists own works), the insight the book gives into Houellebecq’s own literature or the contemporary French literary scene is close to nil. Those looking for an insight into Patagonia, aside from the spurious claims that the land has always held a special place in the French cultural imagination, might be better off looking at Bruce Chatwin’s classic In Patagonia or, for a truly bizarre experience, Gruff Rhys’ film Seperado.
In short, whilst the prospect of a work that is part travelogue, part philosophical discussion and part hagiographic literary biography might appear enticing to some, the reality is somewhat less than the sum of its parts and frequently falls into the banal rather than the profound absurdity associated with Houellebecq’s best work. Those who read French and are looking to get a better general grasp on Houellebecq might be best off tracking down a copy of the 2005 special edition of French culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles which includes a selection of good interviews with the man himself. A good, general introduction to Houellebecq’s life and work has yet to be written in English.