Reviewed by Amanda Sarasien
How to tell the unspeakable story…Perhaps numbers tell what words cannot? Our instinct is to rebel against this notion. We think of numbers, cold stats, as faceless, even violent. The Nazis were obsessive counters, tattooing concentration-camp prisoners with numbers to strip them of identity, performing experiments which transformed human beings into data. But even where the truth itself is unutterable, words give solace. Words, flowering into poetry and history, make human beings immortal. Or so we are wont to believe.
Oulipo writer Michèle Audin turns this axiom on its head in her debut novel One Hundred Twenty-One Days, newly translated by Christiana Hills. While not shying from the admission that bald figures can bring us to our knees with despair–just think of the incomprehensibly large numbers of dead in any reporting on genocide–the novel suggests that words turn innocent numbers violent. And it’s the mathematician, finding symmetry in the seemingly senseless, who uncovers the transcendent human stories buried under generations of historical devastation:
The words that can be “as murderous as a gas chamber,” as Simone de Beauvoir wrote, maybe in one of these cafés, the murderous words, answering terrifying numbers. Multiplying 8 Reichsmarks by 40 years then by 365 days to get 116,800 Reichsmarks has nothing particularly terrifying about it; it’s the addition of the words “mentally ill patient” and “cost” that makes the calculation murderous. (145)
This is a story in numbers. A story that, in the prototypical, self-reflexive mode of an Oulipo novel, asks itself the best way to tell a story, without ever settling on an answer. Where the book begins as a fairy tale, hovering over the point-of-view of a character whose surname changes over the course of the novel , it quickly becomes apparent to the narrator that the story’s burgeoning complexity warrants “other forms, other methods” (6). And so, with each chapter, the narration changes course, venturing into lists, diaries, interviews, psychological case studies, and reportage, and introducing a host of elliptically interconnected characters, each of whom is given a voice for a portion of the narrative. The plot, then, becomes a puzzle: Only the setting – a vaguely delineated community of scholars orbiting around the University of Strasbourg (but appearing also in exile in Clermont-Ferrand, or in the town of N. in Germany) – is fixed, while the storyline itself must be pieced together from each character’s individual fragment. The ending reveals an elegant web of interrelationships and historical coincidences linking the stories across the generations spanning from World War I to the present day.
One Hundred Twenty-One Days surely proved a puzzle for the translator, too. The novel required that each chapter find its distinct voice within the constraints of a spare prose, one that in certain sections is clipped even further into the note-taker’s idiom. That each of these voices comes to the fore without overwhelming the whole, creating an exquisitely unfolding symphony, represents an extraordinary feat. Add to this the countless techniques–alliteration, palindromes, anagrams and acrostics–which are inclined to appear in such an exemplar of the Oulipo form yet escape the casual reader’s notice, and one has a sense of the painstaking attention demanded by this text. Hills’ seamless translation proves an enticing riddle for readers to turn to again and again. Perhaps the translator, then, is the ultimate mathematician, solving equations that push the boundaries between languages.
These constantly shifting perspectives and narrative forms amount to disorienting tremors in the very ground the reader is meant to traverse. Indeed, Occupied France must have seemed to straddle a fault line hidden just below the surface of everyday life, dividing society into Resistors and Collaborators. Yet this fault line is indefinite, impossible to map. While the gentle, fairy tale tone of the opening chapter wins the reader’s sympathy for the child with the unfixed surname (referred to by the narrator as “M.”), with each new perspective this character devolves into a villain. Employing the popular Oulipo constraint of anagram which slightly alters his surname in each chapter (Mortsauf –> Mortaufs –> Motfraus –> Morstauf –> Morfaust –> Mortfaus –> Mofraust), the book highlights this move to the dark side: Notice the embedded “faust,” which the narrative echoes with repeated references to Goethe’s drama. Thus, history is not so black and white. When played out within a circumscribed community of French mathematicians, all trained together at the prestigious École Polytéchnique, allegiances overlap and morality grows murky.
How, then, can Truth be known? The novel wrestles with this question in stirring and ingenious ways. M. desires to possess knowledge, “to be recognized as the best in everything,” (84) and his Faustian quest is embodied both in his changing name and changing appearance: His face has been scarred by injuries sustained in World War I and so he dons a black mask around the time he becomes a collaborator. His obsession leads him into evil. Nevertheless, the search for knowledge, the pursuit of understanding that underlies cold, hard facts, would seem the entire project of this novel. Witness the various storytelling modes which represent a kind of essay, in its connotation of “attempt.” Witness the threads of interdisciplinarity braided throughout the novel: While mathematics ties the wide-ranging themes together, the book delves into music, literature, history, cartography, and many other domains, which all shade into one another until what emerges is an epistemological mosaic. Thus knowledge for its own sake–the endeavor to probe for a deeper understanding of others–is an unending pursuit, as the book’s circular structure makes clear, but one that is urgent and poignant.
One wonders if, for Audin, this pursuit might not also be personal. Many of the plot details mirror the author’s own biography. The daughter of a mathematician who was tortured and killed by French parachutists in the Algerian War, Audin is, herself, a mathematics professor at the University of Strasbourg. Not only does the University of Strasbourg serve as a kind of polestar for the novel’s various narratives, mathematicians’ daughters figure prominently as nodes where the orbits of these narratives cross paths. It is in those moments where a woman’s voice takes over the narration that the novel achieves its greatest emotional resonance.
The most affecting storyline concerns a young Jewish mathematician, André Silberberg, and his beloved, Mireille Duvivier. While the novel’s acrobatic storytelling techniques tend to hold the reader at a distance, it is not until the book’s eponymous chapter that the reader at last feels herself sinking into the story. Slowly the narrator’s voice gives way to Mireille’s. We cannot be sure when precisely the shadowy narrator disappears–the entire chapter is told in third-person–but we suddenly find ourselves swept along by Mireille’s stream of consciousness as she recalls the “one hundred twenty-one days of happiness” she spent with André before the latter’s deportation to the concentration camps. At once the entire novel becomes an elegy, an invocation of memory, made all the more bittersweet when told in numbers.
How does one recount a story, when memory is so frail? Perhaps the story would slip away without numbers, dates to pin it down as history. Counting may be just another way of remembering, of reclaiming an individual’s humanity. Even if one is counting the dead.
Audin, Michèle. One Hundred Twenty-One Days. Translated by Christiana Hills. Dallas: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016.