When French novelist Christophe Bataille was twenty-one, he published his first novel, Annam(1993; English translation, 1996). Winner of the prestigious 1993 Prix du Premier Roman, Annamis a slim volume about the adventures of early French missionaries in late eighteenth century Vietnam. Bataille again turns back the clock in Hourmaster, an evocative, fablelike work that takes place in seventeenth century France. It is a fanciful story about the insidious encroachment of evil, the inexorable passage of time, and the disintegration of society.
Set in a North Sea port simply called the Realm, the story is told by an unnamed first-person narrator who had been the ambassador to the tiny duchy. A string of stark, bleak images mirrors the decay eating away at life in the Realm—the black, wind-eroded stone of the buildings; the dark alleyways; the overgrown paths; and the empty, slime-coated quays. The nightmarish, almost surreal atmosphere created by Bataille is reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “City in the Sea.” Neither the Realm nor Poe’s city are centers of bustling commerce. Rather, they exist on the outer edges of civilization, liminal places wrapped in gloom. The narrator’s brief description of the Realm captures the essence of its deterioration:
To foreigners, the City seemed immense, dangerous. Since no ship inscribed its masts upon the sea, it was easy to get lost in the lower town. The sopping plain that encircled the Realm betokened the deceptive waters. Names of the alleyways had been lost or erased, and no one knew them. For essentials, people trusted to luck. Long since, the horizon had imposed its wavering rhythm, straight into the infinite. There was no point in trying.
The feeling of futility evoked by the city’s landscape is reflected in the attitudes and activities of its citizens. Selfish, cruel, and decadent, the people are unconcerned about the garbage littering their streets, prostitutes openly soliciting customers, or smugglers offering illegal wares “under the benevolent gaze of the guards.” Everybody is on the take, and no one cares.
At the heart of the city lies the ducal palace, the ancestral home of Duke Gonzaga. Although the furnishings and hangings are opulent, they are remnants of a faded glory. Cinnamon leaves are burned throughout the palace to cover the pervading odor of musty fabric and decaying woodwork. Amid this general entropy, Duke Gonzaga indifferently administers the affairs of his contentious people. Sick with boredom, he finds fleeting pleasure in deflowering prepubescent daughters of noble families. He seems more comfortable in the darkness than the light of day. Vampirelike, he feeds his senses with the sexual favors of his young mistresses. In the morning, “only their throats revealed the kisses they had received, the cries they had uttered.”
Yet even Gonzaga’s nocturnal adventures are not enough to hold his boredom at bay. The only events that seem to rouse him out of his lethargy are the mysterious disappearances of two hourmasters, caretakers of the palace’s 218 clocks. The first is an old man named Jerdan. He performs his job for so long that he comes to regard the clocks as living things. He compiles a secret list, later discovered by Gonzaga, that records a name for each clock—names such as Dawn, Zoroaster, and Foritudo. Jerdan’s successor, Guiseppe Tassinari, a young, foppish man, proves to be inept at his job. One night he is beaten by two attackers, and he disappears soon after he recovers. Because there is no one to wind the clocks, time itself seems to stop. The narrator notes that “the palace could not live without hours.” The ticking of the clocks at least provides the Realm with the illusion of forward momentum and rhythm to life. When the clocks fall silent, the duke feels the insignificance of his life threatening to engulf him.
With the arrival of the new hourmaster, Arturo—also derisively called Gog—a change takes place in the duke. At first Arturo’s lumbering form, coarse dress, and uncouth ways amuse Gonzaga. Stiff, regular, and mechanical, Arturo’s personality and habits mirror the timepieces he tends. Yet the duke is impressed by something deeper driving his hourmaster: Arturo’s unwavering sense...
(The entire section is 1744 words.)