Saturday, September 17, 2011

Douglas Messerli | The Perfect Servant (on Cadiot's Colonel Zoo)

by Douglas Messerli

Olivier Cadiot Le Colonel des Souaves (Paris: P.O.L, 1997); translated from the
French by Cole Swensen as Colonel Zoo (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006)

The Colonel of the Zouaves, published by my Green Integer press, was translated by Cole Swensen as Colonel Zoo, since, she argued, few Americans would understand a reference to the Zouaves (the French corps first raised in Algeria in 1831, recruited originally from Zouaua, a tribe of Berbers), best known for their colorful dress and their fighting in 1914-1918 in the First World War. Perhaps Cole did not know that there was also a regiment of American Zouaves (named after the French unit) who fought in the Civil War, and as they vanished from the U.S. military were transformed into what we now call the National Guard! In any event, she felt she captured the sense of zaniness their name called up in French culture with the suggestion of a zoo-like atmosphere.

The fiction begins with the arrival at a grand country home—the same kind of country house portrayed in Renoir’s Colinière and Altman’s Gosford Park—of a tall, elegant man “impeccably turned out in ostrich-skin driving shoes, jodhpurs inched just below the knee, and a Harris-tweed jacket over a blindingly white shirt with a jaunty open collar”—in short, a kind of moderne Zouave—who, as he leaps “gracefully” over the low door, crashes to the floor, breaking his ankle. A fleet of valets comes to his rescue, signaling the arrival of our narrator-hero, alias John Robinson, who is either the most conscientious butler who ever existed or an utter lunatic.

Much of the fiction’s humor—and, in the tradition of the British dialogue novels by Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and others, this is a satiric work—is revealed in the butler’s multitudinous attempts to improve his body and service. He runs daily, fishes the nearby ponds, and lectures the other servants on methods ranging from respectful salutations to the exact curvature of the arm holding a serving platter, and appropriate nods in response to the approval of the dinner guests. His fellow-servants are made to run, swim, climb trees, and perform various other activities in their spare time in order to improve their perfect servitude.

Much of this process of self-improvement is also used by the butler to overhear the conversations of the guests and gather information in what the reader increasingly perceives as both a possible sexual assault of one female guest and a political assault on the upper class. Unlike the perfect servant of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, who politely ignores the pro-Nazi discussions at his master’s events, Robinson absolutely delights in repeating the uncompleted phrases of abuse of those outside the society gathered at the dinner conversations over which he presides, phrases which poet-writer Cadiot hilariously presents in poetic stanzas:

Who pays in the end
who pays the subsidies?

They’ll be in our place soon
it amounts to the same thing
there’s always a high and a low


We need a governmental decree to extract
a priori this mental gangrene

If a citizen has a rotten limb
cut it off no time to stand around and talk about it

And if there’s no more either Major
you go ahead with it anyway

Bite down on that my boy
stick a bit between his teeth
and off you go.

If Robinson is frustrated at times with his fellow-workers’ lack of comprehension, he is understandably infuriated by the dinner-time chatter of those whom he serves, and this seemingly leads him to work even more furiously to improve himself—or to further his hidden plan.

Ultimately, he moves so gracefully, so unobtrusively that he almost blends in with the furniture, the walls, the rugs, allowing him further opportunites to explore contents of secret drawers and shelves. If occasionally he is caught by the master and guests in a thoughtful pose or perceived in a place where he should not be, he quickly turns his behavior into a kind of theatrical performance which, since they have the attention span of a mosquito, quickly puts them to sleep.

Yet, Robinson’s maneuvers become more and more complex as he imagines and devises numerous time-saving devices and even a secret code between himself and the other servants:

“Beautiful day today” means “Change the silverware.”
“Oh, yes…” means “more bread.” Advantage: no more
foot bell or Morse code (source of much error and confusion…)

What, we ask, is he after?

Even as he imagines an escape to a “rented apartment” with the woman guest for whom he lusts, the reader cannot comprehend the reasons for such maniacal servitude. But then, what is any servitude but the erasure of the self? As the butler slowly transforms into a spy and, finally, into the tripping American hero, the story collapses into a game of Clue with a murder in the mansion, the reader coming to recognize that that erasure is exactly what Robinson seeks, particularly he suggests he himself dress as the figure of the first scene:

…Stuff cheeks with special gum. Dye hair with black
wax. Glue on false badger-brush moustache. Tri-focal
glasses with tinted contact lenses. Shoes done up in
imitation ostrich-skin. Riding breeches. Hazelnut crop
in hand. Sharp tweed jacket. Stolen white shirt…. Turn
into the drive between the open gates…. Cut the engine.
Leap over the low door, legs first followed by
the head levered by the arms. Hop. Twist of the hips,
and land, both feet on the ground.

And with that, his Zouave-like (and zooish) maneuvers are complete.

Los Angeles, September 15, 2006
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (May 2008).

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