The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex

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The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: There is no question that this is a significant novel, the first non-French publication to win the Prix Goncourt, and this new English translation makes it available to a wider readership. It is not so obvious however that this serious, literary novel from the 1970s still has a resonance the world of the 2010s – it feels much more like an object for historical study than one which speaks to the post-millennium generation.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 217 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Bitter Lemons Press
ISBN: 978-1904738947

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Jean Calmet, teacher of Latin in a lycee of the 1960s in Switzerland, is confronting his father's death. He can hardly be said to be coming to terms with it, for Calmet pere was and remains a crushing force in Jean's life, and although the death would in many similar novels be a release, here his father's cremation serves to batter Jean into a beaten state. His relations with his work, his lover, his students are all suffused with not a sense of loss but a sense of continuing and growing dominance by the ghost of his father. The authoritian presence seems to grow as a spectre rather than diminish through his death.

Through sparse and tight introspection Calmet reflects upon his past, replays incidents from his childhood and adolescence, and blunders into his present, seemingly unable to break free from the isolation and lack of genuine social contact to which his childhood relations have condemned him. In spite of repeated (and somewhat unbelievable) seduction by a young student, he cannot seize his moment and fails to either develop this relationship or enjoy it for what it is, casual. And inexorably Calmet moves from failure to failure, drifting towards a shocking finale.

But this novel in many ways reflects the concerns of the late 60s and early 70s, the period of the Marcusian questions about how ordinary man is controlled and dominated by capitalist society, the period when Milgram contrives experiments featuring authority figures, men in white coats, guards with sunglasses, pushed experimental subjects to see just how far they could be controlled. Chessex's study is in many senses a reflection of these concerns, of the plight of the 'subjugated', both in work, relationships and in life – the images of Nazism, of the authority of the education system if reflected at a time when the young are rebelling, where they are challenging the sexual and cultural mores which contrasts with Jean Calmet's self-inflicted adherence to them proves so self-destructive. He drifts numbly to his fate, with now dawning realisation, no moment of truth.

In many ways, 'The Tyrant' echoes the classic French literature of the modernists, of Sartre, Camus and Gide, in the way it explores the interior psyche, the struggle to find meaning which these writers do. In that sense it is so much a French novel that it seems little wonder that it won the Prix Goncourt. But the immediacy of these times has passed – while it is not inconceivable to imagine many forms of powerless in current society, the tone of ennui, of inevitable subjugation, makes this feel like a novel from a different era. Calmet represents the dilemma of his generation in transition from the authoritarian clarity of the 50s to the freedom of the 60s, and he fails to cope.

A novel which deals with a similar historical period, but from a much more populist but also contemporary perspective is Red Army Faction Blues by Ada Wilson. While the depth of individual character and introspection is much less here, 'Red Army Faction Blues' displays a more dynamic sense of involvement and engagement from the protagonists. Where Calmet drifts with the inevitability of a an existential protagonist towards his fate, Wilson's characters are actively trying to engage and change. But of course, they were mostly of that pre1968 generation.

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