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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jacques Jouet

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To purchase Savage

Title: Savage
Author: Jacques Jouet
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 85 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Savage - US
Savage - UK
Savage - Canada
Sauvage - Canada
Savage - India
Sauvage - France
  • French title: Sauvage
  • Translated by Amber Shields

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine, small work on art and civilization

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 27/4/2009 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "While the novella offers a series of interesting points of discussion, the book's sparse, dutiful re-creation of an increasingly mentally ill narrator prevents the reader from fully engaging with the story. This novella feels mostly like an unfinished literary experiment." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       Savage uses painter Paul Gauguin's life as a template, its protagonist and (eventual) narrator's life following a very similar arc, with many of the same stations.
       Before coming to Paul's story, however, the author introduces his text and himself -- though emphasizing repeatedly also what the text is not:

     The pages presented here with the curt but comprehensive title Savage, as well as an indication of their genre (novel), were not found, half mutilated, in the false bottom of a secret drawer, or in a privateer's chest, hidden in the attic of some manor. The material in them wasn't gleaned from the lips of a dying man anxious for his tale to enter an attentive ear.


It's quite unlikely that these pages were found at a rummage sale of manuscripts and old papers, since I conceived of them myself. It's even less likely that I uncovered them in a cottage in a rather remote corner of the Kingdom of Aragon, since I mulled over them for a long time, cast them as fastidiously as one would cement, happily covering them with ink, and always fine-tuning them. No, I didn't dig up these pages in an unused soup kettle, a bathtub-turned-storage-locker, or in the back corner of some musty shed; nor did I find them in a hat, on the banks of the grassy waters of the Marne, on January 11, 1904.
       Jouet mocks the all-too-popular dressing up of fictions as long-lost manuscripts -- which this one, with its far-flung action and distant demise would have been well-suited for -- but this extended (far beyond the necessary to make his point) insistence that the pages are of his own creation is certainly meant to remind the reader of the artifice inherent in any written record. Appealingly, too, the transition from his own authorial first-person voice to that of his protagonist comes mid-stream (with Jouet first explaining why he offers no interludes or breaks in his narrative, nothing separating prefatory remarks from the story proper). In just takes a single sentence Paul is handed the reins, with barely a stumble:
     No, the civilization that had cultivated Paul, the civilization that had cultivated me, me, no longer held me dear -- it hadn't for quite a while, and didn't care about what I meant to offer it in return.
       Paul's story is -- as the title already hints at -- one asking: what amounts to civilization ? what differentiates the savage from the civilized ? To face these issues, Paul gives up his conventional life and tries to become an artist: like Gauguin, the protagonist forsakes his (large) family and safe job for his artistic vision.
       The art he ultimately dedicates himself to is that of clothing-design -- and he soon upends convention:
     It was then that I decided to change methods, beginning by adopting an entirely new one. I took a backwards approach to clothing, turning it inside out as one skins a rabbit, trying to escape all convention.
       He imagines: "Socks for the hands. An anal hat. Outer underwear" -- but his first attempts are laughed at, and even he shies away from taking his concept to its logical extremes:
     I hadn't succeeded in inventing the "polar-opposite suit," which would have entailed the systematic covering of what is usually left undressed -- that is, for a body in a public place: face with a mask, hands (sometimes) with gloves, and leaving the rest nude. I mean "leave nude" and not "make nude," which is already one way to turn the world upside down.
       At the first grand Colonial Exposition he is exposed to indigenous cultures and people from France's colonies and is inspired by what he sees; his dream becomes to travel and study in these distant places -- but no one quite sees it his way:
     "Study fashion in the islands ? You must be joking ! Don't you know the islander all go around naked ?"
     "Precisely !"
       He follows his dream, however, suffering hardships and frustrations but also able to indulge in his artistic visions. But when he encounters what could amount to his ideal, a local sect that has literally stripped everything from their bodies and embraced a true 'savage' ideal he had always sought out he backs away:
     Finally, I wasn't able to muster the energy to remain there, to remain in that state of inertia. I was a man whose time was about to run out. I returned to the village, with its small port, its small passions, its small prison. With its petty hopes and pathetic memories.
     I knew I'd never be a savage. I knew it now more surely than ever -- now that I'd spent a few days truly being one: loving the present, without nostalgia or hop, with no thought of what might lay upstream or down -- the present at the only price I could imagine for it -- as I remember it, as I relive it -- at once new and antediluvian -- in a flash. This is my testament.
       Jouet allows Paul to close his story as one would expect in some long-lost South Seas manuscript but then Jouet doesn't rise from the narrative in the same way he had faded from it at the beginning; instead he suddenly does break off the text and offers "a couple of additional accounts, every bit as fictional as the story that preceded them", taking up yet another trick popular among faux-historical fictioneers. It's an amusing coda, too -- but also leaves the whole, very short work feeling even more like a game that Jouet was playing.
       Well under a hundred pages, Savage is a very short novella; it is well-crafted, clever, and entertaining -- but it ultimately does feel a bit thin, lacking the color and embellishment so prevalent in the fake memoirs that Jouet sends up with his approach. Not quite true enough to the form, he undermines his own fantastic little tale.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 October 2009

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Savage: Reviews: OuLiPo: Other books by Jacques Jouet under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jacques Jouet was born in 1947 and elected to the Oulipo in 1983.

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