Wednesday, June 10, 2015

so many different and surprising things - like a 17th century French zombie novel

Several years ago I wrote a bit about 17th and early 18th century French fiction, a subject about which I am two books – now three – short of complete ignorance.  My point was that there exists a large mass of French fiction from this period, often multi-volume series, almost none of which is read by any non-specialist, the bulk of it read by no one at all.  The books that have survived have done so because they retrospectively look like what we call novels.

I am thinking of Madame de La Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678) and the Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731).  I have not read it, but I suspect Alain-René Lesage’s Spanish-style picaresque Gil Blas (1715-35), which must still have some readers, is similar.  It is not just that these books are good but that I do not have to be a specialist in the period or form to recognize that they are good.

I bring this up because I recently read a book from the period that defies my judgment.  It does not look like the later books I know.  Maybe it is not like the books of its time, either.  I have little idea if it is good.  I am sure that it is wonderfully strange.  The book is The Zombie of Great Peru or The Countess of Cocagne (1697) by Pierre-Corneille Blessebois, himself a strange figure who should be the subject of a novel, just translated by Doug Skinner along with the preface by Guillaume Apollinaire that caught his attention.

Great Peru is in Guadeloupe, and the Zombie is part of a complex hoax:

… the Countess of Cocagne entered through the back door, which I had carefully left open, and came up to our room disguised as a snow white Zombie, believing herself invisible.  The Foreign Prince, as I said, had been told, but she knew nothing of this, and it was upon him that we had decided that she would enact her masterpiece.  At first, she strode about the room; she furiously rattled the windows; she struck us one after the other, and did so many different and surprising things that old La Forêt below was stricken with terror, and asked me several times what was wrong.  We replied, the Foreign Prince and I, that we were being beaten but could see nobody.  (58-9)

The “Countess,” seeking revenge, has asked the narrator to turn her invisible.  In exchange for sex, he agrees, but since he obviously cannot make people invisible, he just lies to her.  In the above passage, we see the narrator and Prince pretending that they cannot see the Countess as she beats on them.  If I am not sure of the point of the hoax, I can see that everyone gets what they want – revenge, laughs, sex – at least for a while.

We sat at the table, and feasted on the Countess’s tadpoles…  (86)

My favorite detail, included for no other reason.  The little hints of life in colonial Guadeloupe, corrupt and indolent for the French, brutal for the slaves, make the book for significant than it might seem.  Scholars of early colonial literature like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) ought to read The Zombie of Great Peru.

Makes we wonder what else is out there, forgotten, buried in those twelve-volume French romances.  Thanks, Doug, for the work on this book, whatever it is.


  1. I think this book could also sneak into a gender studies syllabus: if I'm not mistaken, tricking people into sex falls within the modern definition of sexual assault.

  2. From the end of Skinner's introduction:

    "I'll let Blessebois have the last word, defending his character during a trial in 1672:

    'Are you not that wicked boy who has debauched so many young women?'

    'No, I am that young man who has been debauched by so many wicked women.'"

  3. There's a terrific book I read earlier this year and about which I hope to write a post some day: Eric Dussert's Une forêt cachée (unfortunately available only in French) a collection of 150+ short articles about the marvels lurking in (mostly) Francophone authors of the last three or four centuries who haven't been republished for at least fifty years. The oddity and diversity of what Dussert turns up is staggering. He does not, as I recall, mention a 17th century French zombie novel, but it would certainly slip easily into his book without anyone blinking (in fact a quick search shows that Dussert has referenced Blessebois's novel elsewhere).

  4. Mind if I mention that Black Scat Books published ZOMBIE and it's available on Amazon:

    Thank you!

  5. Glad you enjoyed it. It was certainly fun working on it. It is mentioned in some colonial histories, as being one of the first examples of French colonial literature.

    I would indeed encourage a gender studies reading; the racial politics are also provocative: the narrator is white, but a conscript; the Countess is creole, but an aristocrat, in the crude mockup of aristocracy established in the colonies. Their antics are consensual, but rather repellent; they're both pretty awful specimens. (And it does seem to be based mostly on fact.)

    It really belongs to the curious genre of "libertine" literature, which is often just workaday smut, but also includes gems by Voltaire, La Fontaine, and Diderot, and crazy stuff by writers like Blassebois and de Sade. These books tend to be shorter than those twelve volume romances... I'm working up the courage to read "Caquire," an elaborate scatological parody of Voltaire's "Zaire" from 1780. The proto-Ubu!

    I'll have to look for the Dussert...

    (And, by the way, let's all thank Black Scat Books for putting the tadpoles on the table.)

  6. Wow, that Dussert book is exactly what I am talking about!

    Doug, it was treat to encounter the book. There are many English-language readers who ought to find it interesting, if they ever hear tell of it.

    I admired the decision to print the book in that gigantic old-fashioned font, gesturing towards the look of the original.

    Not only do I not mind self-promotion, I encourage it. Buy here! Your university library will not be much help this time, I fear; they are making a mistake which they will have to correct later. While you are shopping, pick up an Alphonse Allais book or two.

    I assume that everything in the Black Scat Absurdist Texts and Documents Series is worth reading, although not necessarily by me, now. But by someone, now.

  7. What a really strange sounding book! Zombies and a feast composed of tadpoles, it's a wonder this book doesn't have a wider audience!

  8. The timely, and I hope fleeting, interest in zombies is a nice bonus, but really the book is for fans of French literary craziness, a great tradition.

  9. I can only hope that everyone who comes here will, like me, google the author and hit the "translate this page" link. The Google entry alone is hilarious enough to warrant running out (or immediately toggling to Amazon) to buy this book. Great find, Tom, and thanks, Doug!

  10. Blessebois's biography is insane.

    Skinner at some point provided a link to a French version of the book, useful for cheapskates but missing the Apollinaire (and the Skinner). The Black Scat edition does actually look like that scanned version, except better printed.