31 August 2020

Éric Chevillard: Choir (2010)

Choir, literally meaning 'Falling' (possibly in a (mock-)religious sense), is almost undoubtedly one of Éric Chevillard's bleakest books, with suggestions of (waiting for) Godot, Endgame and a little Lautréamont.

The inhabitants of the island of the same name all want to leave the hell they're in: a place that can be freezing, where food (such as it is, and often they rely on root crops, animals they catch, or even eating themselves – at one time when people had died, or there's a suggestion of parents eating their young). The land is covered in guano or infertile sand, sometimes quicksand in which they're buried alive. Not only is the land itself hostile, but they're prey to savage animals or even themselves as there's frequent infighting.

This is not a timeless environment because planes often arrive there: forced to land for whatever reason, the planes crash, are forced by necessity to land on Choir, or are drawn to the island as if by some kind of magnetism – there's a suggestion of a kind of Bermuda triangle. Whatever the reason, any survivors are unable to make contact with any outside civilisation and must join with the others in fruitlessly wanting to leave. Inevitably, this seems (as in Beckett) to be a description of the human condition.

Contradictions abound, the hunters become the hunted, sleep is avoided for fear of dreaming of Choir only to wake up to the living nightmare, misfortunes are counted off as if prayers on a rosary, and sex is generally avoided because it can only result in producing more despairing life. And yet one game consists in causing the opponent as much harm as possible without killing him, as if misery must paradoxically be prolonged.

But there's hope of a kind. In the centre of the island is a statue to the one person who has succeeded in escaping from the island – Ilinuk, who built a machine from the wreckage of the planes: he is worshipped as a god, and the main essential thread in this story is the aged Yoakam's tales of his relationship with Ilinuk and of how he awaits his promised return, like a saviour coming back to free his people from their servitude. Or could he be rambling, is Ilinuk dead or did he in fact exist? Chevillard piles on the misery, emphasizing one of his obsessive themes: the impossibility of survival.

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