10 May 2015

Guy Hocquenghem: L'amour en relief | Love in Relief (1982)

Guy Hocquenghem's L'Amour en relief (translated as Love in Relief) is a long, very strange mixture of essay on blindness, social criticism, metaphor for homosexuality, thriller, picaresque adventure and science fiction novel. With the exception of a coda narrated by the fictitious Dr Philippe Marcœur, there are two alternating narrative voices: the more prominent comes from the blind Amar, a young man originally from Tunisia; and the other is of a psychologically disturbed woman who was for a time known as Andréa: identity is subject to flux in this book.

Amar goes blind following a motor-cycle accident in his native Tunisia, although he is adopted by the wealthy and elderly Mrs. Halloween, who briefly takes him to France where his half-sisters live, and then to the USA. Amar has previously had sex with Andréa in Tunisia, although Mrs. Halloween just performs fellatio on him after putting her false teeth in a glass, and introduces him to other probably elderly women who pay him for sex. But Mrs Halloween dies, leaving all her money to her cat Zita, who also appears to die at the same time.

I mention this book as partly an essay in blindness because it views blindness not from the usual standpoint of the sighted, but of that of the blind, who – particularly from Amar's point of view – see far more than them. It's a truism that the blind rely on their other senses and as a result make far more use of them than people who can 'see', and although Amar is particularly gifted in this respect L'Amour en relief makes a very strong case for blindness in relation to the acuteness of the other senses.

Amar goes to the Valentine McPherson institution for a year before 'escaping' from it, and there he meets others who in the opinion of the Fathers who run it are blind: some suffer from spatial disorders, being unable to locate objects; others are incapable of looking from one object to another and simply fix their vision on one thing; others have no visual memory; and others have no sense of dimension. Huong has alexia, meaning he is unable to read or write in black: as a result he uses Braille, although Amar scorns this as one of the traps the sighted have devised for the blind: in many ways this is a highly subversive novel. When I read the back cover and saw that Claire Gallois in Le Figaro suggested that the novel perhaps isn't suitable for libraries in young girls' convents I thought it must be because of its (probably strong homosexual) content, but the sex in it is – in these days at least – very tame indeed.

Institutions of course tend not to be subversive, and Amar discovers that the in-mates are being dosed with bromide to kill their sex drive. As a person who has come to learn a great deal from the tactility of the sex act, this practice is evidently anathema to Amar, who does however manage to form a sexual relationship with one of the boys in the institution.

Amar succeeds in finding a lucrative job in West Hollywood: as a gigolo to both men and women – he has no particular gender preference. Guided by the cat Zita – who has now reappeared – with the aid of dark glasses he always speedily gets a lift to his favourite pick-up spot by hitching.

Meanwhile Andréa tracks Amar down by secretly following him around the world, although she takes some time to get together with him sexually again, and claims (to the reader) to be pregnant by him. From what Philippe says about her in his coda the reader may have just cause to doubt her word.

But then, why should the reader take Philippe's as written in stone? He thinks Amar is a dangerous trafficker of heroin on a big scale, and certainly he's imprisoned for 247 years for smuggling the drug, but then there's the possibility of getting out in twenty years after the authorities turn him into a kind of semi-computer who/which can pick up radio signals from the Russians. That's not even mentioning the odd case of Larry, the neurophysician who has prosopagnosia, meaning he can't remember people's faces – but that's (yet) another of the stories in this very strange, but mostly fascinating, novel.

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