Literary Fiction, Tournier, Michel

Reflections on The Erl-King (spoilers)

Image result for le roi des aulnes bookLe Roi des Aulnes (The Erl-King) is the second novel I have read by Michel Tournier. The first was La Goutte D’Or (The Golden Droplet), which I reviewed two years ago.

Michel Tournier’s novels are unsettling. The characters seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. This is especially true of The Erl-King. The protagonist Abel Tiffauges is a mechanic who admits in the first pages that he is an ogre. He’s a large man with an underdeveloped sexuality. His sexuality – or lack thereof – is a sign in this novel of his otherness. The first half of the novel is a series of journal entries. Tiffauges writes his secrets with his left hand. In these so-called “sinister writings”, Tiffauges describes his childhood at a boarding school. He meets a boy named Nestor who saves Tiffauges from many unpleasant situations. At school, Tiffauges develops an obsession with scatology and children. Yet, Tiffauges has no sexual interest in children. Instead, he turns to children as symbols of purity and innocence. Much like St. Christopher, the patron saint of his childhood school, Tiffauges dreams of carrying children to safety.

The Erl-King is ultimately a myth that explores Nazi ideology, especially its obsession with purity. Tournier suggests that this obsession with purity was not unique to the Nazi party but is behind all forms of hatred. Tiffauges is drawn to Nazi stories about a mythological Germany with Teutonic knights and boreal forests. These myths give Tiffauges greater meaning in his life. They also speak to his odd interests. He eventually kidnaps children for the Nazi Youth. The ogre of the first letters becomes the Erl-King of Goethe’s poem.

Tournier’s novels are highly philosophical. His characters explore the values that the Western world holds dear. The grotesque in The Erl-King exposes the carnavalesque nature of evil. The quest for beauty and goodness becomes complicity in the Holocaust. For all his unsavory characteristics, Abel Tiffauges has a child-like wonder that is unsettlingly human.

I’ve always been struck by Nazi Germany’s obsession with the Middle Ages, Joan of Arc, and fables. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales served to promote German nationalism in the 19th-century. Tournier suggests that the stories we tell each other can indeed be harmful.

The Erl-King is not a pleasant read. Abel Tiffauges is highly unlikable and some critics have condemned the book for humanizing and mythologizing evil.

But I think this novel remains relevant. I am concerned about the myths young men are taught on certain social media sites. These are vulnerable people whose personal challenges are exploited to further movements that promise a restoration of purity. In a dark, broken world the desire for purity is tantalizing but dangerous. It leads to the very subversion of goodness. I simply can’t wait to read more of Tournier’s novels.

Literary Fiction, Tournier, Michel

Review of The Golden Droplet

Image result for the golden droplet tournierLa goutte d’or (The Golden Droplet) by Michel Tournier follows Idriss from the Saharan oasis of Tabelbala to Marseille, France. One day, a French couple arrives in a Land Rover, and the woman with blond hair takes a picture of Idriss. Because photography is taboo in this village, Idriss feels a strong desire to retrieve his photo from the blond haired woman.

Only a short distance away from Tabelbala is a major Algerian city. Everything is different there. The natural history museum has an exhibit dedicated to the Sahara. Idriss knows that his village is on display, but none of it feels familiar. Most of the Algerians at the museum are just as ignorant of life in the oasis as was the blond haired woman who took Idriss’ picture.

Photography is front and center in this novel. Tournier explores the relationship between portrait-making and colonialism. Idriss is a model everywhere he goes. Nearly everyone he meets thinks he represents “foreignness”, “orientalism”, and the Maghreb region.

Idriss’ photo is at once specific and universal. He must have two forms of identification with him at all times, but the people he meets think Idriss represents an entire race. Indeed, mannequin artists decide to make a mannequin of Idriss’ profile for a French department store with a large North African clientele.

But the racism goes both ways. Every French woman Idriss meets resembles the woman with the blond hair. He wants to ask all of them whether they have Idriss’ picture. In Tournier’s novel, the “other” is acknowledged only as a portrait. A picture is a flat and lifeless reproduction of one moment in a person’s life. It can’t represent the entirety of a person’s identity, let alone every individual in a particular group. Idriss looks at his government IDs, but he can’t recognize himself in them. He feels like the photos have taken away some of his humanity. He is objectified and commodified. Most terrifying is the realization that his image may outlive him.

In The Golden Droplet, most scenes are linked to one another through “face” imagery. Idriss’ pilgrimage to Marseille is not only a journey of self-discovery but one of self-forgetfulness. He feels like an actor in a play. A number of characters in the novel reflect on the human face and what it represents

Unfortunately, Tournier is way too heavy handed with his imagery. From the very beginning, the reader knows the message the author is trying to convey. Sometimes, Tournier paints a picture (pun intended) and then proceeds to explain it to us. The last third of the book is overwhelmingly didactic. It leaves nothing to the imagination.

In general, though, Tournier’s novel is both thought-provoking and enjoyable. It is one of the first books I’ve read that has explored the hostility between ethnic groups in Algeria. If you are interested in modern post-colonial French literature, I recommend The Golden Droplet. It certainly would help to read Tournier’s novel alongside Emmanuel Lévinas’ philosophy. Lévinas had quite a lot to say about faces.