Friday, December 05, 2008

The Vampire of Ropraz – review

Author: Jaques Chessex

Translator: W Donald Wilson

First Published: 2007 (original French)

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Jaques Chessex, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, takes a true story and weaves it into a lyrical tale of fear and cruelty.

1903, Ropraz, a small village in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland. On a howling December day, a lone walker discovers a recently opened tomb, the body of a young woman violated, her left hand cut off, genitals mutilated and heart carved out. There is horror in the nearby villages: the return of atavistic superstitions and mutual suspicions. Then two more bodies are violated. A suspect must be found. Fevez, a stable-boy with blood-shot eyes, is arrested, convicted, placed into psychiatric care. In 1915, he vanishes.

The Review: First things first, is this a vampire book? Well, yes it is. Though it is about a necrophilic sexual-sadist and though he attacks the dead, which would (in a supernatural sense) make him more a ghoul, this is a vampire novel. Why? Because it is about the village/media hysteria that names something or someone as a vampire, it is about the real world scapegoating (in this case of a live person) that is associated with vampirism and, not least, because Chessex constantly returns to the genre and clearly, through the content, knew what he was doing.

That aside, the blurb – whilst giving the bare bones idea – actually fails to accurately cover the content by a country mile. It isn’t a December day, try February, the person who finds the desecrated corpse isn’t a lone traveller, his son is nearby in the ox cart and the coffin is taken from an open grave, not disinterred from a tomb… Picky but you know where I am coming from.

The novella is high literature rather than pulp fiction – and I adore it when the genre is picked up in such circles because (unfortunately) by doing so the genre is offered a legitimacy that is perhaps otherwise denied. The problem is that this is also where the book falls down.

Chessex draws a beautiful vista of superstition, hysteria and scapegoating. We can actually understand why this occurs as the corpse mutilation (including sexual sadism) is so disturbing as to make the most rational and anti-empathic person question whether he or she would jump upon that bandwagon. The fact that it is country folk looking for a scapegoat is irrelevant, it is likely that ‘sophisticated city folk’ would act the same way.

Chessex then creates a scapegoat (allegedly this is based on fact but I cannot pin down the original ‘real world’ story thus I look at this as purely fiction) in the form of Fevez and creates a character who was heinously abused as a child and Chessex seems to be asking the question, “Did we create the monster?” The answer is no, probably not, as we remain unsure as to whether he committed the necrophilic crimes and thus we are unsure as to whether we (as a society) created that particular monster. We know that, as an adult, he had bestial relations (indeed this is how he came to be arrested) and, when released from custody due to lack of evidence in respect of corpse desecration, he raped a woman. But as for the crimes against the dead we are left with nothing but the need for a scapegoat, any evidence (or lack of it) be damned. He is a monster, but not necessarily the monster we are looking for.

Of course, his physical appearance doesn’t help him, though it serves to feed into the scapegoating. His eyes “are always red and inflamed as if ringed by raw flesh; he blinks continuously, as if the daylight causes him pain”. More so his teeth are “particularly long, sharp teeth of the nocturnal prowler with his thirst for blood.”

Why did he display such features, physiologically? This is a question which is never answered and as much as Chessex writes fantastic literature, as much as he draws disturbing crimes together with superstition, conspiracy and mystery… we are left with a very hastily drawn conclusion that answers very little and seems little more than a set up for a bout of irony. Yes the irony is funny but the ending is dissatisfying as it is bereft of answers. Perhaps if this has been pulp fiction rather than high literature the answers I, as a reader, wanted would have been provided?

Stylistically (not content wise) I took away a feeling of Slaughterhouse Five, but perhaps because the end felt so hastily drawn it has nowhere near the fulfilling quality of Vonnegut’s opus. 6 out of 10.

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