The Cemetery in Barnes
Meaning, in literature as in life, is to be found in its form rather than in its content. This subtly disconcerting novella, told almost entirely in the habitual past tense (“he would”, “he used to”), portrays how memory works as an endlessly repeated palimpsest, constantly erasing and overwriting the impress of actual events, at the same time and by the same procedure both providing and preventing access to the past. The tension between what is erased and what cannot be erased intensifies through the novella, which assembles its layers of narration as if gleaned from conversation by a guest in the house in Wales of a translator and his wife, but somehow at the same time providing access to the private thoughts and self-narratives of the translator. Josipovici’s lightness and fluidity moving between speech, reported speech and thought, and his remarkable ability to encompass many versions of a story in one text, is alluded to by the translator as we learn of his fantasies of drowning himself in the Seine after he moved to Paris following the death of his first wife: “He knew such feelings were neurotic, dangerous even, but he was not unduly worried, sensing that it was better to indulge them than to try and eliminate them altogether. After all, everyone has fantasies. In the one life there are many lives. Alternative lives. Some are lived and others imagined. That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadows over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death.” It is the death of the translator’s first wife that the text constantly attempts to avoid but toward which it is constantly pulled. The translator takes refuge in the stories of others to provide relief from his own. “It was only when the meaning of what he was translating began to seep through to him, he said, that he found it difficult.” After her death he moves from London to Paris, experiences detachment and detachment from detachment. “Sometimes, as he was walking through the Parisian streets, he would suddenly be seized with the feeling that he was not there, that all this was still in the future or else in the distant past. He would examine this feeling with detachment, as if it belonged to someone else, and then walk on.” Some experiences leave a wound, however, that is not easily erased, or which one is too attached to to erase, such as the wound on the thigh the narrator receives during an encounter with a young woman in a beret about whom little else has been retained. “We’ve all got something like that somewhere on our bodies. Maybe if we got rid of it we wouldn’t be ourselves any more.” Moments of the past sit with specific sharpness in the generalisation of the habitual past tense narration which seeks but fails to erase them, to keep the narrator functioning at the cost of the events makes him himself. “Listen to him, [his second wife] would say. He never sticks to the subject but always manages to generalise. It’s another way of avoiding life.” But the unspeakable pulls so hard upon the narrative that does not speak of it that that narrative becomes patterned entirely by that which it does not represent. “There are times when the order you have so carefully established seems suddenly unable to protect you from the darkness.” The unassimilable specifics of the circumstances of his first wife’s death start to show through, and our suspicions are both intensified and undermined by the means by which we form them. We are left, as is the translator, in the words of a poem by du Bellay that he translates, “at the mercy of the winds, / Sitting at the tiller in a ship full of holes.”
Gabriel Josipovici's Cemetery in Barnes is a short, intense novel that opens in elegiac mode, advances quietly towards something dark and disturbing, before ending with an eerie calm. Its three plots, relationships and time-scales are tightly woven into a single story; three voices--as in an opera by Monteverdi--provide the soundtrack, enhanced by a chorus of friends and acquaintances. The main voice is that of a translator who moves from London to Paris and then to Wales, the setting for an unexpected conflagration. The ending at once confirms and suspends the reader's darkest intuitions.