- Ceremony and Silence in Gérard Gavarry’s Allada
There are very few writers who reinvent themselves with each book, who bring to each of the projects they undertake a willingness to see things differently and to account for that new vision in fresh ways. Gérard Gavarry is one of those writers. Mutability is undoubtedly the most striking feature of his work when one regards the latter in long focus, from the late 1960s to the present;1 and it is one of its most appealing qualities, too. Yet it also makes Gavarry an elusive writer, one who is difficult to situate with regard to his contemporaries, and in terms of the taxonomies to which we usually appeal in an effort to understand culture in the present tense. That elusiveness helps to explain why he has not yet attracted the measure of critical attention that his work deserves.2 For my own part, I would like to address Gavarry’s elusiveness quite directly, in an examination of one of his most slippery texts.
Allada (1993) is a puzzling, challenging, and consistently rewarding novel, one that wagers firmly upon the principle of literary innovation. The title itself is sufficient to alert us that something uncommon awaits the reader. It is a sonorous, richly assonant word, yet its signification is not immediately apparent. It is certain to pique the reader’s curiosity, and by virtue of that one can imagine it as the first element in what Roland Barthes called the hermeneutic code of the text.3 People who know world geography better than most will recognize that Allada is a small city in Benin some twenty miles inland from the Gulf of Guinea. People with ready access to atlases, encyclopedias, and other kinds of reference works—that is to say, many people, now—will easily learn that “Allada was the capital of the most powerful king in Ajaland before it fell to the armies of Dahomey”; that Toussaint Louverture was a scion of Allada’s royal house; and that consequently Allada is regarded by Haitians as a sacred city. The quotation [End Page 83] and the information that follows it comes from the entries on “Allada” on Wikipedia, in the English and the French versions of that site, respectively. But let us not forget that when Allada was published in 1993, people did not have such data at their fingertips, and access thereto required a great deal more energy and readerly activism than it does now.
It should probably be noted, too, that those few individuals who, like me, read Gavarry’s Façon d’un roman (2003) before reading Allada may recall a chapter entitled “Retour d’Allada” toward the end of the former (171–72). Yet that chapter is so brief and elliptical that it sheds very little light on the current problem. What I mean to suggest is that the title Gavarry chose for his novel is deliberately obscure for the reading public he is addressing, if one imagines the latter to be primarily Metropolitan French, as seems likely. Moreover, that very group will recognize a dimension of exoticism in this title, a tributary to a current that has flowed broadly in French literature, particularly since Baudelaire. It may be the case, however, that this appeal to the tradition of literary exoticism is a surface phenomenon—or, in other terms, a distractive gesture in the writerly sleight-of-hand that Gérard Gavarry practices in Allada. For the impact that he seeks to achieve, in the first instance at least, may be one of radical obscurity rather than one of simple (and easily reducible) exoticism, something calculated to suggest that the fictional world we are about to enter will be strange and difficult to map.
The novel’s incipit does little to dissipate that obscurity: “A cette époque, il est Monsieur l’Ordonnateur. Il habite un logement de fonction en bordure de la lagune, près du terrain sur lequel chaque année, lors des fêtes de la Tabaski, les bergers musulmans venus du Nord campent parmi les odeurs de suint et les bêlements de moutons” (9). The man whom Gavarry puts on...