Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Un Tissu De Mots": Writing Human and Animal Life in Olivia Rosenthal's Que Font Les Rennes Apres Noel?

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Un Tissu De Mots": Writing Human and Animal Life in Olivia Rosenthal's Que Font Les Rennes Apres Noel?

Article excerpt

In Que font les rennes apres Noel? Olivia Rosenthal splices an intimate autobiographical narrative together with various, at first seemingly unrelated, texts about animals. This essay explores ways in which her formal experiment unsettles conventional (anthropocentric and patriarchal) discourses and practices that have traditionally shaped the border between humans and animals. It considers some of the ethical and aesthetic implications of this commitment to writing.

Olivia Rosenthal's Que font les rennes apres Noel? is a sign that contemporary French writers continue to pursue experiments in form capable of challenging norms of human identity. The book was an important critical success, having won, for example, the Prix du Livre Inter. Critics have emphasized its originality: in Le Monde, Clara Georges writes that "l'originalite et la curiosite dont fait preuve ce livre sont precieuses, parce que rares." Many critics have called the book "deroutant"--"puzzling," "unsettling," or "disconcerting." (1) What they find most unsettling is the way in which the book represents the relationship between humans and animals, and between humans and their own animality (the subjects of this essay). Baptiste Liger in L'Express writes that it is a book "surtout, qui reveille la bete en lui," whereas Georges praises Rosenthal's ability to find "dans l'autre, des elements susceptibles de l'eclairer sur son intimite."

Que font les rennes is unique in its hybrid form, achieved through a precisely planned writing strategy that is more rigid, thorough, and meaningful than most literary devices. The reader is struck by a genre-bending series of effects from the very first page. We begin with a short paragraph about a young girl (addressed in the second-person formal "vous") and her love for animals. After a blank we find a paragraph told in a different, unidentified but rather scientific voice, describing some animals. Another blank, a return to the girl. Then again a blank followed by more animal discussion. The pattern continues throughout the book, with an alternation between biographical or even autobiographical passages ("vous" and the narrative voice seem to come from the same source) and texts about animals. What genre is this? Is it a novel (though it omits the subtitle of "roman")? An autobiography? Is it fiction or non-fiction? Who is narrating? What is the connection between the animal passages and the "character," especially in terms of the life-writing passages' main theme, sexual preference? Rosenthal's form, though clear, produces a reader whose attention is roused and devoted to finding connections through which she can interpret these strange couplings.

In each "type" of text there are additional experimental techniques. In the animal passages the most prominent is a process to which Rosenthal has turned in several of her books, in which she conducts interviews with various people whose lives are connected to a specific field of practices or experiences. (2) For Que font les rennes, she conducted interviews with people who work in animal-related fields--tamers, trainers, ethologists, butchers, experimenters, etc.--which she would then rewrite in order to capture rhythms or repeated motifs, eventually adapting their words into her writing. In addition to these interviews, Rosenthal includes research on animal behaviour, legislative texts, animal terrorism cases, and other written sources. This fills the animal passages with language--indeed, with different languages and the practices they describe--that is not limited to any single type of discourse (juridical, ethical, sentimental, agricultural, experimental, ethological, etc.).

The strikingly different life-writing passages are more intimate, dealing with a single character gradually coming to terms with a non-traditional sexuality. This story is divided into four parts, according to different stages in the protagonist's history. And yet these passages are not told through the traditional "I" of autobiography, but in the second-person formal pronoun "vous," standing in for a character whose name is never shared. …

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