Every day around the world people are robbed, killed, raped and cheated. Every day around the world people are born, fall in love, get married, divorce and die. In L’invention du monde (The Invention of the World*) French author Olivier Rolin recounts the events that take place on one calendar day around the world. One calendar day, that is 48 hours, because 48 hours pass between the moment a date, let’s say 21 March 1989, begins on one side of the international date line and ends on the other side.
21 March 1989 is a day like any other. The Invention of the World is a novel like no other. To say that it is ambitious is an understatement. But it succeeds in every respect.
As Italo Calvino writes in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, and as Olivier Rolin recalls in the postscript to The Invention of the World, "Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function."
In preparation for The Invention of the World, Olivier Rolin collected and read nearly 500 newspapers from around the world published 22 March 1989. A project like this is unthinkable without the help of others. The newspapers had been sent to him by employees of French embassies and were subsequently translated by various assistants. Rolin read everything, from newsflashes to weather reports and from exchange rates to obituaries and classifieds. Everything could be the origin of a story or provide the context for another.
Although it may sound like a dreary compilation of facts, The Invention of the World is a real page-turner. Rolin’s baroque prose takes you in one sentence from South America to Japan and back while briefly mentioning an accident in Manila. In one rollercoaster chapter he takes a tour of fires happening around the world on 21 March 1989.
The nature of the project poses restrictions, but it also offers unprecedented opportunities. Most novels extend in time. The Invention of the World extends in space. It is set in suburbs in the US and villages in Africa and Asia. It is urban, metropolitan and rural. Somewhere in the world, that 21 March 1989, it is hot, cold, rainy or sunny. Somewhere a storm causes damage, somewhere else a lone runner gets lost in a forest and has to wait until the morning fog has disappeared before she can reorientate herself.
Every chapter, and there are 48 chapters, of The Invention of the World refers to a classic of world literature. There are references to Borges, James Joyce, Ovid, Melville, Dante, Mallarme, Kafka, Camoes, Marco Polo, Italo Calvino, Homer, the bible and of course Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days and Georges Perec’s Life. A User’s Manual. They add to the joy of reading The Invention of the World. I couldn’t resist a smile when Winckler and Percival Barnabooth made their appearance.
The Invention of the World shows how life is governed by chance. Accidents happen. Some people are lucky others not so. A stray bullet misses one person at an inch, but hits another. People die in car crashes and fires. Others narrowly escape. Some people get away, others are arrested for no reason whatsoever. Inevitably, bad news and bad luck dominates. Inevitably, because the novel is based on events that made news headlines. But Rolin also mentions those to whom luck smiled. A man wins the lottery. A girl wins a miss contest.
Despite the near endless array of mischief and mayhem, The Invention of the World is a celebration of life. Towards the end of the final chapter, as the day draws to an end, language begins to dissolve. The entire novel is put between quotation marks, except for the last sentence. It can only end in one way: silence.
(*) As of this writing L’Invention du Monde is NOT available in English translation.