A poet, novelist, playwright and musician – and the man who famously said, "My fame will outshine that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon" – Raymond Roussel was never a part of the official surrealist movement, but is nevertheless among the most important surrealist writers. A highly eccentric wealthy man with odd habits and a unique writing method (a formal style made unpredictable by its construction being based on homonymic puns), he was almost unanimously unpopular during his lifetime, save for the admiration of the surrealists and avant-garde. It was only in the 1950's that he began to be acknowledged as one of the originators of the nouveau roman and the ‘theatre of the absurd’, with both Eugène Ionesco and Alain Robbe-Grillet citing his influence. With the recent republication of Nouveau Roman authors such as Duras, Robbe-Grillet and Simon, as well as Roussel’s novel Locus Solus, by Oneworld Classics, the reprint of one of his best-known works, Impressions of Africa, is something to look forward to.
Impressions of Africa opens with the coronation of Talu VII, emperor of the African land of Ejur, who has just vanquished the ruler of the neighbouring land and claimed it as his own. The ceremony is witnessed by Talu’s wives, many children (including his blind daughter Sirdah) and French guests – with one of their number acting as narrator. An extraordinary and surreal gala performance ensues, in which science, theatre and African ritual are combined in a series of unbelievable events that last over the course of the night.
The narrator then reveals how this all came to be. He, bound for South America, boarded a ship in Marseilles leaving for Buenos Aires, joined by a quirky multi-talented group of fellow passengers – including the genius chemist Bex, the female-impersonating Carmichael, former ballerina Olga (accompanied by her tame elk and she-ass), a vain fireworks manufacturer, an Italian tragic actress and a travelling circus company of assorted acrobats, animals and freaks. When their ship is wrecked by a storm on the coast of Ejur, Talu demands that they remain his prisoners until he has gained ransoms for them. Whilst waiting for the ransom sums that will free them, the passengers pass the time by setting up a theatre company – the Incomparables – and prepare to present a fantastical display of their marvellous individual skills. The preparation for this is interwoven with the events that lead to Talu defeating his royal rival and arranging his coronation. Thus the circumstances that led to the miraculous and strange events in the novel’s first half – from ancestral deeds committed by Talu’s forefathers and the recent political and romantic liaisons that have recently occurred, to descriptions of how the performers prepared their acts – are explained precisely, grounded them in reality, albeit it a reality which is still strange and fantastical.
The title recalls nineteenth-century travel writing, but with a sly twist. Roussel rarely left his Paris hotel, let alone France, thus his ‘impressions’ are not based around his own exploits, or indeed on reality. They are instead ideas lifted from his imagination, resulting in an inventive, often absurd and highly surreal portrait of ‘Africa’, the unique product of Roussel’s mind.
The imagery he conjures is very detailed, which only serves to heighten their oddity. However, Roussel’s writing is precise and structured, describing objects and situations with a mathematical precision – in fact, scientific and musical terminology and concepts are frequently used, grounding the fanciful and making the logical appear magical. His keen fascination with theatre and music (he adapted his own works into plays and was himself a pianist) is also reproduced in tableaux, film stills, plays and ritualized ceremonies. Science, technology, music and theatre elaborately blended together, as seen when an advanced mechanical loom weaves a tableau onto a cloth in what is in essence a technological ‘performance’. The overall effect is of a dazzling surrealist theatrical performance, followed by the curtain being lifted to reveal the truth behind the magic tricks – but in a way that does not lessen the reader’s original reaction.
Many of his descriptions, which are deliberately surreal, provide an amusing contrast with historical narratives on Africa – from Herodotus’s giant dung beetles to more recent accounts. A scene proceeds as we would expect it for a moment, but is then followed by an amusing detail: the image of the African king being led to the place of his coronation, which would ordinarily be solemn and ceremonial, is made ridiculous and theatrical by his costume – a low-cut evening dress and flaxen wig. Once these details are finally explained (Talu, unaware that he is in ladies’ dress, is merely imitating Carmichael’s act, which he admires), we are presented with an unusual situation: the fantastic events that we saw were not entirely the work of the natives, but the westerners. The typical stance of a narrative on foreign culture, emphasizing distance and peculiarity, has been reversed. Impressions of Africa is therefore not only a reflection of the theatrical and musical arts that Roussel loved, but a work that can be subversive. It is a highly imaginative and ultimately bizarre novel that effectively conveys the author’s unique writing style and eccentric personality.