Rikki Ducornet's Tetrology of Elements: An Appreciation
Guttmann, Allen, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
If my mode were analysis rather than appreciation, I'd attempt to place Rikki's work--"Rikki" is the pen name that Erica Ducornet preferred before Chatto and Windus insisted on something more conventional--in relation to that of the writers whose work seems most similar to hers: Borges and Garcia Marquez. Her narratives, like theirs, move back and forth across the line that separates realistic fiction from fantasy. In The Stain, for instance, the children tormented by the Mother Superior are recognizable children, but strange things happen to them. Consider this moment. Mother Superior's lover, the Exorcist, is breakfasting. "`Oysters,' he explained ... as he spooned shallot vinaigrette onto the creature's exposed and quivering parts, `are simply gorged with good intentions. They mollify Mind.'" He is interrupted by the Mother Superior's cry ("The attic!") and both of them rush off to discover the impossible. "Eulalie was floating above the attic's bare board floor, her body listing to the left as her chain tugged at her ankle. Her blanket lay in a heap beneath her, and although the attic was freezing she was hot and vapor rose from her breasts and thighs. She gazed down upon them all with an expression of unabashed merriment.(1)" One never knows, when reading the Tetrology of Elements, when the more-or-less realistic narration is likely to ascend, like Eulalie, into the realm of the impossible.
The reader accepts these moments because Rikki's prose is never prosaic. In an afterword to the tetrology Rikki explains, "I was infected with the venom of language in early childhood when, sitting in a room flooded with sunlight, I opened an alphabet book. B was a Brobdingnagian tiger-striped bumblebee, hovering over a crimson blossom, its stinger distinct.(2) Sweet are the uses of the venom of language! A few examples will have to suffice. Like Henry James, who refers in The Ambassadors to Waymarsh's "matutinal beefsteak," Rikki plays with the Latinate and Germanic sources of the English language. An unsavory woman who eyes Charlotte, the heroine of The Stain, emits a "mucilaginous grunt" (194). Setting that story in a French village not unlike Notre Dame le Puy, where she lived for a number of years, Rikki indulges in bilingualism: referring to a werewolf, a woodsman plays with words: "One little sou for the loup-garou" (211). All of the novels are marked in this fashion by Rikki's second language.
There is also the linguistic exploitation of cultural diversity. The Stain is enlivened by the antics of a charlatan named Ali-Hassan Popa and The Jade Cabinet includes some adventures among the Bedouin. Cuchla, the Amazonian Indian who is the heroine of Entering Fire, becomes enchanted by British and American popular culture. She thwarts Senator Joseph McCarthy with a medley of allusions from The Hunting of the Snark, The Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, Krazy Kat, etc.:
Senator McCarthy: Have you, uh, read subversive books....
She: (Interrupting him!) Are you a Snark or a Boojum?
Senator McCarthy: Now let's get this straight, here I ask the questions.
She: OK, Boss, I admit to everything. Poop! Poop! I borrowed the motorcar while the owners were at lunch; Ding Dong the witch is dead; sir, I stole the tarts; I threw the brick at Krazy too.(3)
Subversive books indeed!
In naming her characters, Rikki draws on the resources of several languages. In The Stain we encounter Sister Malicia (who is as mean as they come), Madame Cloche (who sounds not at all like a bell because she suffers from lockjaw), Pere Archange Poupine (who is fatherly, angelic, and childlike(4)), and Ali-Hassan Popa (who seems in his con-man's behavior to combine Islamic with Roman Catholic fraud). Entering Fire introduces us to a phallophobic bride named Virginie, an entomologist named Cletis Twigger, and a pair of Nazi officers named Roll and Mopse (German names which, taken together, refer to a variety of pickled herring). …