Operation Freak: Narrative, Identity and the Spectrum of Bodily Abilities in Francophone Literature by Christian Flaugh (review)
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Reviewed by
Christian Flaugh. Operation Freak: Narrative, Identity and the Spectrum of Bodily Abilities in Francophone Literature. McGill-Queen’s University Press. xi, 328. $95.00 [End Page 462]

Although the title initially appears sensationalist, Operation Freak is a serious and wide-ranging piece of scholarship. Founded on an understanding of disability studies that recognizes the multiple states of disability and the experiences lived in relation to it, Christian Flaugh’s study examines the relationship between human bodies and cultural narratives that intersect with questions of race, gender, and citizenship to form an individual’s identity. By means of introduction, Flaugh examines the case of Louis-Auguste Cyparis. Alleged to be the sole survivor of Mount Pelée’s nuit ardente on 8 May 1902, which wiped out the city of Saint-Pierre, Cyparis became a member of the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the following year. In his discussion of Cyparis’s burned body, the author examines the ways in which freak identification becomes a means to explore the role of narrative and bodily ability in and beyond francophone studies.

Chapter 1 provides a theoretical framework that points to the ways in which identification at once relies on and expresses bodily ability, drawing particularly on the work of renowned disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson to define the notion of “freakery.” Flaugh proceeds to explore the representation of four characters from different novels whose appearance is markedly different from those around them. In chapter 2, the author examines Jacques Godbout’s Les Têtes à Papineau (1981), which portrays the experiences of conjoined twins Charles and Francois Papineau and their contemplation of surgical modification. Flaugh focuses on the relationship between language and the operated body and highlights the broader relevance of this story in terms of contemporary Quebec and its concerns with language, nation, citizenship, and identity.

The author turns to Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun’s L’enfant de sable (1985) and La Nuit sacrée (1987) in chapter 3 to explore the manipulation of meanings attached to the body in terms of gender, religion, and difference. In L’enfant de sable, the father of seven daughters determines that his eighth will grow up as a male, and she is accordingly raised as a young man. Although she benefits from the privileges granted to men in traditional Arab-Islamic societies, Ben Jelloun’s novel explores the young woman’s growing awareness of her sexual identity. The key scene in which the father gives the illusion of circumcising his son is echoed later in La Nuit sacrée when the sisters carry out female genital mutilation, raising questions about the manipulation of the body, as well as notions of normality and belonging.

Finally, Flaugh considers questions of race and ability in Maryse Condé’s Moi, Tituba sorcière … Noire de Salem (1986) in chapter 4. The author reveals the importance of Tituba’s body to the transregional formation of identity and the mediation of her body through a series of ability-focused narratives that are founded in discourses of race. Flaugh contends that the emphasis placed on the protagonist’s abilities in her [End Page 463] construction as exotic closely resembles the experience of historical freaks of culture, but is careful to observe that the most poignant means for reading Tituba as a freak of culture are her abilities as a supernatural healer. What Flaugh does so effectively in this study is move beyond the notion of freak as a theme to consider the literary expression of freakery and wider questions of bodily identity. Flaugh’s study is a valuable contribution to the field of francophone studies, in which questions of bodily difference and disability remain underexplored.

Charlotte Baker
Department of European Languages and Cultures, Lancaster University
Charlotte Baker

Charlotte Baker, Department of European Languages and Cultures, Lancaster University

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