We were introduced to Christophe Chaboute last year, when Un peu de bois et d’acier, first published in France in 2012, was released in the UK as The Park Bench. A mostly wordless affair conducted in black and white, The Park Bench did what it said on the tin: sharing vignettes of various characters who shared a common geographical location at some point during their day or week. Alone, first published in France in 2007 as Teut seul, is then both a later book to those of us who have discovered him in the last year, but an earlier book for Chaboute himself.
As previously, Chaboute takes time to establish his tale. We see the sea, a bird aloft, descending. A rail. A rock. Gradually, a lighthouse establishes itself. We hear the boom of the waves as they crash. Time, we sense, moves slowly here. And yet there is not necessarily calm – we see a flock of birds following in the wake of a small fishing vessel, squabbling in mid-air over what could be seaweed. We see the boat itself, two men, one older, voluble, one younger, sulky, new to the job. Boxes are left at the lighthouse. Why are boxes left at the lighthouse? What is this? A drugs operation? No. It turns out someone is living in the lighthouse, someone born deformed – a monster! – who has never set foot on dry land. His parents left money for supplies in perpetuity. Hence the boxes.
The ship draws away. Night falls. The waves continue to boom against the lighthouse. We see a leaf in outline, a branch, a trunk, a tree. We see a horse, grazing. We see inside the lighthouse: a spiral staircase, a kitchen, a chair, a coat on a hook. A tap. Jars on a shelf. A fishing rod. A chair, a table. A shuttlecock. Ornaments on a windowsill, a photograph. The circumference of a world. We see a hand, crumbling feed into a goldfish bowl. Later, we see hands lifting a raggedy book; we hear a boom and for the first time we wonder – have we been wrong, thinking the boom was the sound of the waves? We see a heavily armoured centaur. We see a man in outline, silhouetted, outside with a fishing line. He scurries away as the shipping boat draws close. Boxes are left. After the boat leaves, we see him for the first time, Laughton’s Quasimodo.
Inside, later, he picks up his book – a dictionary. He drops it (boom!) and plays Virgillian Lots, closing his eyes, stabbing a word. Ah, we think: leaf, horse, centaur. We’ve been sneaking up on this man’s world bit by bit. Gradually we see how he attempts to understand the mysteries of the world he has never seen, the bits he gets (Podiatry is the study of feet – if feet are studied, what else is studied? Chair legs? Anglepoise lamps?), the parts that elude him. Perfectly paced, Alone takes us into his world, a 50 plus year old man who has never left a lighthouse, with only a goldfish and a dictionary for company. There are intersections – a couple having a row, a young man abandons a young woman on his island for a time, the sulky fisherman leaves a note – but what we are witnessing is the progress to a crisis.
As with The Park Bench, Alone is an intoxicating experience, a fully realised world, nuanced and particular, moving and sweet. If you read it having read The Park Bench, you may feel, as we did, that it feels like an earlier book, the nameless monster being a somewhat more melodramatic device than a park bench (although there is probably an argument to be made that says a bench is more of a literary device than a monster – but then we would say literature is full of monsters and park benches are a little more rare). But the takeaway is the pacing – Chaboute is an elegant storyteller, his wordless images heavy with poignancy, fable-like in its simplicity.
Any Cop?: Our second Chaboute is as beguiling as our first, and we are already wondering about and looking forward to which of the dozen or more Chaboutes Faber could publish next…