- Captain Cap (Vol. 1) by Alphonse Allais
The translation into English of Captain Cap as the first in a series of three is both welcome and very timely. It is welcome since the Absurdist Texts & Documents Series by Black Scat Books project has filled an important void, since the only other English venture into Allais's writing, The World of Alphonse Allais, translated by Miles Kingston and published in hardback by Chatto & Windus in 1976, was made available in paperback in 2008. But apart from being long-awaited, Captain Cap also comes at a timely moment because its ironies are particularly apposite today as we witness global intellectual colonization. The importance of not forgetting about the French context and its originality for a true understanding of this text was underlined by the former director of the National Library of France, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, when he launched a counter-attack against the U.S. imperialism by Google Books, in which search results for European writers initially were mostly provided in English (which resulted in the establishment of the Europeana Libraries—www.europeana-libraries.eu). [End Page 500] The first book that Jeanneney showed in the course of the recent documentary "Google and the World Brain" (BBC, 2013) was Diderot's Encyclopédie, which, without wanting to be overly chauvinistic, does put things in the right order. He dryly remarks (in French with English subtitles) that on being confronted with the gift of a small thermo flask brought to him by a Google Books VP in order to win him over, it was clear to him that they did not understand who the director of the National Library of France actually was, or what he (commercially) represents. The documentary also identified similar misunderstandings or "misreadings" by Google Books—for example, the initial cataloguing of Walt Whitman's famous book of poems Leaves of Grass under Gardening and when the initial failure to recognize that Japanese books need to be scanned vertically rather than horizontally, turning any search result into complete nonsense. Such faux pas are hilarious after the event rather than in the absurd way in which Allais's text actually points to—even anticipates— these kinds of dangers in an indirect or implicit way. Thus aside from the sheer pleasure of meeting an old friend, his observations have relevance now more than 100 years later.
The importance of Allais in the French-speaking world is clear in, among other things, the fact that his Captain Cap's proclamation "Loin d'être l'apanage de certains, l'assiette au beurre doit être le privilège de tous" is today still used in the online version of the Larousse dictionary as an example of the use of the word assiette <www.larousse.com/en/dictionaries/french/assiette/5827>. Inevitably, something gets lost in the traffic between languages and, in this case, the "assiette au beurre" proclamation becomes in Doug Skinner's current translation "Far from being the privilege of a few, the pork barrel must become the privilege of all." "Pork barrel" alludes to a typical American kind of politics and might be the closest you can get to the French idea, but, alas, some important information does get lost. L'Assiette du Beurre was one of a series of satirical magazines that existed around the turn of the 19th century in Paris, and Allais was one of its contributors. Born in 1854 in Honfleur, Normandy on the same street as Erik Satie, with whom he later collaborated, he published Captain Cap: His Ideas, His Adventures, His Drinks in 1902, a few years before his death in 1905.
Allais, along with Alfred Jarry, remains highly respected as one of France's truly great humorists, brilliant in his subversion of truth and reality, demonstration of which is the fact that in 1954 the literary Prix Alphonse-Allais was instigated, with Ionesco as its first laureate. However fictional Allais's Captain Cap may seem, rather like Jarry...