Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times is a novel that is by turns scintillating and frustrating. It reaches its highest points when it fully embraces the identity and tone of the philosophical novel, which it just as frequently avoids to follow the meandering yet rigid thought processes of its nameless protagonist and narrator, a disaffected archaeologist studying (and guarding) a Paleolithic cave filled with ancient wall paintings and human debris. The zeitgeist of this narrator’s world feels the opposite of a Golden Age; in it, humankind is reduced to such dysfunction that uniforms are passed on from one dead archaeologist to another regardless of size, and days can be wasted in pursuit of a properly colored thumbtack.
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Our narrator tells us that “we ourselves are today the descendants of a species related to and rival of the humans species that was annihilated and whose prestige and privileges we have usurped and whose civilized manners we ape.” Reading through his own account of his life, we can believe this assessment. Humanity, in Chevillard’s vision, has outstripped its own capacity for progress and festers in a permanent, anti-heroic malaise, crushed by the weight of its own role in history. The book’s promotional materials reference Samuel Beckett, and the comparison is apt. It’s easy to imagine the narrator mumbling the final line of The Unnamable (1953)—“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—regularly, and with the requisite world-weariness.
In such a world, we shouldn’t expect much in the way of external story, and Chevillard doesn’t make the pretense of giving us one. His work is straightforwardly in the tradition we have come to call experimental, and readers will know their covenant with the author from the beginning. Chevillard gives us no clues about his narrator on the sly, offers limited narrational hijinx, and presents few nudges or winks pointing beyond the man’s endless wrestling match with human history. He gives his narrator an elliptical voice that curls upon itself like yarn around a ball, which leads to some outstanding high-wire acts of language. The structure of the novel—short, meditative chapterlets of no more than a few pages—lends itself well to this degree of attention to language. The sentences lap and ebb and exceed themselves; some passages and paragraphs would stand strongly on their own as prose poems. Of his profession, the narrator tells us,
We know sand as if we were sand, and mud as deeply as possible. We love dirt— death chewed over by life—it forgets nothing and we, precisely, are interested in everything: the humble details, the slightest indication of man’s presence in these places, traces of his footprints. Our ambition is not to reveal a radiant city and its irradiated population every time we raise a clod of earth.
Painted on one cave wall is an animal whose identity shifts depending one one’s perspective.
We have to admit it looks too much like a mammoth’s trunk not to be one, and then the whole pachyderm immediately appears in three-quarters profile—we mistook its frightening right tusk for a bird of prey’s wing—so strange is this figure that when observed more closely it could be taken for a salmon, a crab, or a bison, judging by the wooly fur of its turtleneck.
Later, in my favorite philosophical passage of the entire novel, our narrator takes in all of humanity in a single staggering, humbling glance.
Archaeology has confirmed that man in his historical fiction has always been what he is, except for a few details; successive civilizations resemble each other so closely that it would be possible to recount History backward, beginning with today, starting at the end in order to travel back through the ages all the way to the most ancient known remains… simplifying, simplifying, the walls’ heavy stones that were so difficult to extract from the earth having been cleverly replaced by partitions made...