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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Claude Ollier

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To purchase Disconnection

Title: Disconnection
Author: Claude Ollier
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988 (Eng. 1989)
Length: 127 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Disconnection - US
Disconnection - UK
Disconnection - Canada
Obscuration - Canada
Obscuration - France
Bildstörung - Deutschland
directly from: Dalkey Archive Press
  • Originally published as Déconnection in French, but now available under what was apparently Ollier's preferred title, Obscuration
  • Translated by Dominic Di Bernardi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : slim, powerful double-tale of decay and collapse

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 3/12/1989 Sonja Bolle

  From the Reviews:
  • "The horror in each story is total, but completely different. The ultimate horror, however, lies in the suspicion that inevitably grows within the reader: These two voices may in fact be the same man. Can a single human being bear two apocalypses ?" - Sonja Bolle, The Los Angeles Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Disconnection shifts back and forth between two narratives set some fifty years apart. One focuses on Martin, a French student who found himself: "grabbed after midnight by a patrol in his hometown and shipped here in no time, eighteen years old, student", conscripted by the Germans to a forced labor camp in (an unnamed but readily identifiable) Nuremberg during the Second World War; "it might have been worse", he realizes about his wartime fate, but it isn't very good, either. The other narrative is presented in the first person, in a time and place where some undefined global catastrophe has occurred; the narrator's observation that the catastrophe: "didn't wait for the century's end, millennium balanced ahead of schedule and charged automatically to our account" dates it to the near-future from when Ollier was writing, sometime in the 1990s. While the contemporary narrator does not identify himself by name, there are details about his biography which suggest that he too is Martin.
       (Ollier himself was conscripted by the Nazis to do forced labor in Nuremberg; presumably many of the experiences attributed to Martin reflect what Ollier went through.)
       Martin is not a closely-held prisoner. While the demands of work are great, he does find time and opportunity to explore the city and has considerable freedom of movement. He even toys with the idea of escaping -- simply boarding a train would be easy enough -- but, at least initially, before the complete breakdown of the German war-effort, wisely doesn't; if the German system allowed him some liberties, no one has any doubts that the ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy would not have any difficulty in quickly tracking him down. (In early 1945, after the firebombing that caused enormous damage to the city, he and a fellow countryman then do simply take the train out of there; though Martin only gets so far, the German war machine is certainly no longer anywhere near as efficient (not that they don't catch him and put him back to work -- after a fashion).)
       The factory Martin works at is filled with forced laborers from across the territories then under Nazi control, an astonishing international mix. (Apparently over ten million foreign laborers, from prisoners of war to conscripts, were forced to work in Germany during the Nazi war effort, extending far beyond the most familiar concentration and labor camps.) Martin can only guess what's being manufactured here, but presumably it has to do with munitions; they only produce parts, and here: "no two fit together, they must be assembled elsewhere, in a related factory, on the other side of the city perhaps, on the other side of the country ?" (Yes, disconnection in all its forms is very much a theme throughout.)
       Over his time in Nuremberg, there is a clear sense that the war is not going well for the Germans -- "The noose is tightening, people feel it clearly" -- even as everyone continues to play their roles:

     Mute workshop, mute booming factory, population laid flat as if still under shock, traumatized, amnesiac perhaps, completely conditioned, day and night, in every place, its unconscious colonized.
       Among the most striking episodes is when Martin goes to the recently bombed theater, where the roof is poorly patched so that the rain drips through onto the audience, and he attends a performance of Richard Strauss' Ariadne on Naxos, a clinging to normality that verges on absurdity in these end-times:
     And the staggering contrast between auditorium and stage. For in front of him out there, beyond the sphere of dismantled darkness, open to every wind, where the stoic faithful commune without flinching, it's a forgotten world that bares itself to the gaze antique duplication, cultural splendor and pageant of the myth, its own myth as well, a historical fragment of the continent, of the twentieth century on the threshold of peace and very brief blossoming, that promised so much.
       The extent of the stakes and devastation of course goes far beyond what Martin experiences, even if he is at one of the epicenters; as someone he happens to meet in a restaurant sadly sums up: "Europe has reached its end, sir, it's meted out its own death".
       The world Martin finds itself in, in its slow final throes of collapse, is one that both locally and universally has found:
     History led astray, vocabulary brought to heel, parody of reason, perversion of grammar and conjugations, rigged use of tenses, expurgated dictionary, impoverishment of the word, banishment of inflections, of polysemous meanings, of nuances.
     This degradation of language gradually overcomes him, feels this strongly, vaguely guilty about using it so, reading newspaper text, speaking in circumlocutions and euphemisms, the exact words would make everybody roll their eyes and burrow back underground.
       The 2 January 1945 bombing of Nuremberg, with its extensive deployment of incendiary devices, is another of the powerful scenes Ollier presents. Air raid warnings and the retreat into shelters were already very familiar exercises; on this occasion the bombings seem yet again a safe distance away -- "still no explosions, or else they're very far away" -- only for the smoke to start seeping into the shelter. Martin makes it out, only to find practically everything on fire -- yet:
     The city blaze doesn't make much noise, very unexpectedly, he'd never have imagined such a thing, the whole city is burning, as far as the eye can see, and he hears nothing but the sound of the wind.
       The factory where he works continues in operation, albeit limping along. Eventually, Martin abandons his post, taking whatever trains are heading south to try to get out of Germany. He only makes it so far, but his story -- that those in Nuremberg had sent him south, to try to make himself useful somewhere else -- is good enough when he gets caught; amusingly, the authorities quickly find him work, too, at a local railway station in an out of the way town.
       The war winds down -- the trains stop coming -- and Ollier nicely captures the small town locals dealing with the inevitable, taking down Hitler's portrait, for example: "it's the moment of a rare vacancy and expectation, no more points of reference, the body in retreat". His story closes with the arrival of the Allied troops -- "seemingly from another world, Martin is staggered, Martians, he whispers".
       The other storyline has its narrator adapting to a world that has faced some cataclysmic event:
     What went off kilter, nobody knows exactly, it all fell apart right down the line, then things accelerated lately, caught people up short, on the wrong foot, irrevocably perhaps.
       He remains vague in his understanding of it:
     A new event evidently, occurring without any of the indexed preliminary signs, puzzling, unpredicted, a wave too large to be detected by the scientists, the specialists, the doctors. A mutation of sorts, not only of the economy, but of knowledge, of memory, within minds.
       The prevailing system has collapsed -- creepily, not into anarchic chaos, but into one of dulled, almost indifferent acceptance:
Transportation paralyzed, machines out of service, circuits broken down, communications cut, it was unexpected, staggering. More serious is this resignation, the latent acceptance, as if unconscious, the absence of reactions, a sleepwalking tetanized populace, an extraordinary situation after what we'd experienced, very quickly turned banal
       The narrator lives in the countryside, and some smaller-scale semblance of ordinary life continues there. There are far fewer people here now, but the shops and post office stay open -- a barter system replacing cash --, and, for quite a while, the power remains on; there's even TV, even if the previous eighteen channels have been reduced to two. Things limp on, after a fashion, but the sense of decay and collapse is overwhelming.
       A nice touch is when he finds some of the locals suddenly losing their ability to read, one more manifestation of a general regression. Worried that the same might be happening to him, he rushes home and grabs a book (by Fénelon) to check; he's relieved to find he has no difficulties with the text -- yet recognizes a fundamental change:
     Every line kept its meaning, every sign, every element. It's not the same meaning as before, however, before the incidents, its something different.
     Every word means something and this meaning appears distant, obsolete, from another age.
       The parallels to Martin's experiences from half a century earlier are clear, each man in a situation of: "Decline, decay. This accelerated regression". Their experiences are localized -- yet also near-universal: it is the world as whole, civilization itself, that is collapsing. One manifestation is the: "Degradation of language and perversion of the game, diversion of words, deprivation of meaning -- by violence in the past, by gentleness these recent years".
       If we know what happens to the world after Martin's encounter with the 'Martians', the narrator's future is much more open-ended, the decay closing in around him, the salvation and order found after the Second World War having proved to be an apparently only temporary respite. Ollier closes his novel with the narrator noting: "Something else has begun perhaps"; whether for better or worse remains unclear.
       Disconnection impresses as a novel of decay and collapse, of ideals of Europe and civilization and culture, with culture -- and specifically language -- not strong enough to sustain an order, mankind driven to self-destruction. Ollier's narrator frustratedly notes it is an: "Affront to history, after so much progress, so many discoveries and conquests, advances in science and knowledge", but, so the novel suggests, it is a danger lurking very near. The second chance presented after the Second World War was, ultimately, missed, with the next great blow coming not necessarily from war but no less devastating for that.
       While originally published in French as Déconnection, apparently Ollier's preferred title was Obscuration -- the title under which the French edition is now published as. Certainly, it is a novel of disconnection, the two (one ?) protagonists increasingly at a remove from the world around them, but Ollier highlights the word 'obscuration' near the very end, and the sense of things concealed -- notably any rationale for the insanity of these world-collapses -- is very strong throughout.
       The Martin-storyline alone is a fascinating account of a less widely-known experience of life under the Nazis during the Second World War, while the second narrative neatly and creatively expands and reflects on that one. It makes for a powerful work that feels even more relevant than at the time of its writing, a warning of dangers, very much in the here and now, that we seem far too oblivious and acquiescent to.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 March 2021

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Disconnection: Reviews: Other books by Claude Ollier under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Claude Ollier lived 1922 to 2014.

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© 2021 the complete review

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