In praise of experimental literature Eden, Eden, Eden by Pierre Guyotat is one of the most powerful pieces of French literature I’ve ever come across. I read it a few years ago, on the relatively short journey to and from work. Yes, I read it on a bus. It seemed like the only appropriate place. Not because it was a vehicle in motion though, but because the time I spent on it was limited. Because reading this particular piece by Guyotat is not only difficult and demanding – it’s draining.
The text is one single (and obviously very long) unfinished sentence, with no capital letter at the start and no full stop at the end. Yet although this choice of form in itself represents a challenge, it’s by no means the hardest part.
The setting is somewhere in North Africa, in a place that evokes a camp of sorts, a place where people are kept in/out by fences and barbed wire. This secluded piece of land with its barracks and predominantly male population has a distinct military flavour. This is also reflected in the power games that are played out. Power games that involve a lot of sex –not the pleasant variety, I should add, for there’s mainly pain, violence, sadism, mind games.
Yet there are moments of near tenderness. One in particular sticks in my memory like a slow burn… A young girl wanders around the camp, close to the fence. She gives herself to a soldier and he, he does whatever he pleases with her body. He also knows that she hasn’t had a meal in a while so when they kiss, he lets her pick with her tongue the bits of food stuck between his teeth. And considering the context, it really feels like a tender moment…
So why this particular title? Was it sheer provocation? Somehow, I doubt it. A writer of this stature doesn’t publish a text simply for its shock value. The way I see it, he explored the notion of Eden, far beyond its commonly accepted definition – even turned it on its head, as it were. For the place he takes us to bears no resemblance with the earthly paradise described in the Bible: there is no lovey-dovey bliss. Yet its inhabitants are in a state of innocence nonetheless. Innocence in the true sense of the word, with no concept of sin or morality, no inhibition of any kind; there’s only the need to satisfy basic desires and urges. And perhaps the isolation of the place itself is conducive to the types of behaviour described.
Moreover, as this territory where the characters are confined is not ruled by the laws and ethical codes one finds in any given society, its occupants are alienated from the surrounding world. Alienated because of their innocence… like children who would’ve missed out on any form of upbringing or education. This is something that seems to intrigue those who live in the wider world (in this case, the desert). Exchanges between the inside and the outside of the camp are hinted at – fences are, after all, porous membranes – but this never affects the behaviour of those who dwell within the camp. And the author never passes judgement; so neither should we.
I never had the chance to discuss this text with anyone, let alone a “specialist” on the author, so whatever interpretation I throw on this page is just that: my own interpretation. All I know is that I managed to read it cover to cover, eventually, and no matter how upsetting a read at times, it was definitely worth it. Not only because it takes the reader into unfamiliar territory, raising questions that take most of us away from our comfort zones, but because it’s a perfect example of what good experimental literature can be.
*written by poet, writer and NBW member B. Anne Adriaens, a version of this article was first published in Notes from an Exile, under the pen-name Nuala Rayne.