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Saturday
Feb192011

The Interrogation by J.M.G. Le Clezio

First published in French in 1963.  This review is of the English edition published by Simon & Schuster on July 14, 2009.

"The Earth is blue like an orange": the words of a clever poet or of a madman disconnected from reality? J.M.G. Le Clezio explores the legendarily thin line separating the mentally astute from the mentally ill in The Interrogation.

Adam Pollo isn't sure whether he has recently been discharged from a mental institution or from the army. He lives in an abandoned house at the top of a hill, spends his days in a deck-chair by an open window, waiting "without moving, proud of being almost dehumanized," in a state he describes as meditative, watching the shadows of insects and "reconstructing a world of childish terrors." Adam is isolated, but claims he doesn't want to be alone: he wants to "exist with the coefficient 2, or 3, or 4, instead of that infernal coefficient 1." He thinks about and sometimes tries to write to Michele, the woman he met on the beach. Sometimes he follows a dog through the streets. Toward the end of the novel Adam makes a rambling speech to a gathering crowd and later finds himself in an asylum where he's interrogated by students under the disdainful supervision of a psychiatrist.

Although the psychiatrist is quick to attach diagnostic labels to Adam's mental illnesses, the reader is less certain, in part because Adam is so adept at verbal jousting with the students. Adam is disturbed and troubled, but those are traits shared by many who avoid institutionalization. It's clear that Adam doesn't function well in society, equally clear that he doesn't much want to -- his isolation is self-imposed, as evidenced by a letter from his mother -- but in his self-absorbed world, Adam's mind flourishes. Adam finds meaning in random forms of light and shadow, the product of a different way of seeing. This resembles mental illness more than genius, but the novel seems to be asking: who is to say? It is Adam, after all, who calls attention to the poetic phrase "the Earth is blue like an orange," asking why its author isn't regarded as a lunatic. Adam defines life as "a kind of disorder of the consciousness," and despite our ceaseless attempts to impose order on our straying and occasionally irrational thoughts, Adam might be right.

I confess that I found some of the novel's middle passages tiresome, particularly when Le Clezio began playing with the novel's form, changing fonts and lining out text and leaving big blank spaces between brackets. The devices approximate the disorder of Adam's mind, I get it, but after awhile reading disordered thoughts gets to be a lot of work. Other parts of the novel, including the interrogation and Adam's interaction with the students, struck me as brilliant.

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