An rich but eccentric scientist takes his guests on a tour of his country estate, showing them his teeth mosiac, his racing seahorses, his frozen corpses that mechanically act out the last moments of their lives, his tarot insects, and a whole bunch of other crazy stuff. Lacking dialogue and convincing characterisation, the nicest way to pitch this novel is to describe it as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory if it were written by Jorge Luis Borges.
This was a book I admired more than I enjoyed. Roussel’s ideas are brilliant, but the plot around them is not. There is an interesting structure, where Cantarel will show his guest a wonder, and the text will digress to the story behind that wonder. Roussel uses this structure to go all over the place, from Arthurian Romance to the French revolution. If I were adapting this series for television or radio, I’d use the tour as a framing device, Cantarel as narrator and the digression stories as the meat of the episodes. A bit like the old radio show The Black Museum.
Reservations aside, It might still be worthwhile picking this book up if you can get it for a reasonable price. I say that because I had a difficult time finding it in my university’s library. Rupert Cunningham’s translation seems to be the only one available in English, and there was only one copy on my entire university’s campus! Clearly this is not a book in wide demand. Still, the French surrealists liked it, and I can see why. It’s certainly a unique work.