RAIN TAXI, Volume 4, No. 1 (Spring 1999)
by Raphael Rubenstein
Since the 1970s, French writer Marcel Cohen has been building books out of brief, self-contained chapters which appear, at first, to have little in common with one another. The effect is rather like a novel, or an entire shelf of them, that has been bombed into ruin. The reader is left to wander among the surviving parts, piecing fragments together, trying to imagine the pre-catastrophic whole.
While long recognized in France, where his books are published under the prestigious Gallimard imprint, Cohen is only now becoming available to American readers. Following the appearance of the aphoristic The Peacock Emperor Moth (Burning Deck, 1995), last fall saw the U.S. publication of one of his major works, Mirrors, in a faithful translation by Jason Weiss.
Like most of Cohen's books, Mirrors, which originally appeared in French in 1980, is not an easy work to classify. The stories it containswhich range from chilling, quasi-gothic tales of misadventure to pieces of gritty reportage to vignettes of amorous rendezvoustake place all over the globe and across four decades. Some of the most vivid offer glimpses from the life of a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied France. An economical writer, though never minimalist, Cohen usually gets in and out of a narrative in five or six pages. Occasionally, the barrage of stories is interrupted by a page of existential dialogue between two anonymous, emotionally entangled figures.
At first, the brief chapters seem to follow one another almost randomly. In the second of the 64 sections, a mother puts her clinging child to bed. A few pages later, while wandering through an unidentified war-torn city, the narrator is detained by a suspicious army patrol. He records the stages of his heightened consciousness as he stands against a wall wondering if he is about to be shot. Death is only marginally less distant in a following scene in which a hospitalized man eavesdrops on friends discussing his condition. The settings of these concise tales shift from Paris to Jerusalem, from Third World war zones to rural scenes from childhood, but they are always seen through the eyes of the unnamed narrator, and always presented with a striking blend of concrete detail and philosophical meditation.
Beneath the randomness lies a connecting thematic thread, or perhaps several. I hesitate to tell the prospective reader too much-it's an important part of reading Mirrors to feel out the contours of Cohen's larger themes for yourself. Seeking to reconcile the human need for stories with a profound distrust in the elaborate apparatus of conventional fiction, Cohen leaves plenty of space within the confines of his book. Yet, if he invites us into a realm of disconnected fragments, it's not for the sake of literary formalism but out of a scrupulous sense of truth, a fidelity to an unhealed historical wound. As one character tells the narrator of this haunted and haunting book: "You only remember what hurts you."