Summary

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Raymond Queneau’s The Bark Tree is among the first antinovels and,as such, neither attempts to tell a carefully plotted story with beginning,middle, and end, nor strives to be coherent. In addition, it does not include well-developed characters or offer readers any moral or philosophical conclusion about life. The Bark Tree should be considered as an energetic, vibrant assault on convention, in which people are either things or real human beings. In many ways, the novel is a sustained joke about the random, precarious lives people lead and the ever-present threat of chaos and destruction with which they learn to live. Queneau, like James Joyce, uses language of his own invention and street slang to make more vivid what he has to say. By avoiding refined speech, he lets the characters be themselves: ordinary workers living in an ordinary suburb of a modern city.

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Instead of providing a well-constructed plot, Queneau gives the reader a number of actions which may not be related. Etienne Marcel’s narrow escape from death is observed by Pierre Le Grand, who informs Saturnin Belhotel, who tells others. Meanwhile, Mme Cloche sees a rope with a noose tied at its end in a garden and wonders who left it there. Mme Pigeonnier flirts with the boy, Theo, while Etienne has a nightmare in which his mother wears a beard to serve boiled eggs. Yet Etienne does think about the rope (which he also saw) and wonders whether someone has tried to hang little Theo or a dog.

Throughout the novel, seemingly unrelated events somehow become connected, if only tenuously, by the links the characters forge between those events in their minds. Though their lives become accidently intertwined, the characters take an interest in what happens to one another, even though that interest is neither keen nor lasting. Queneau’s people like to conjecture about others and to reconstruct events happening to others in order to pass the time and avoid ennui.

In their search to quell boredom the characters thrive on sensation. For example, when Ernestine, a poor waitress, marries Old Taupe, an equally penniless junk dealer of repulsive habits, the event causes much amusement and gossip for Mme Cloche and her fellows. They hope that, after marrying Old Taupe, Ernestine will find that he has stuffed thousands of franc notes under his mattress or in a tin can. Yet when no money has been uncovered, Ernestine’s “friends” quickly lose interest in her. Only on her deathbed does Ernestine regain their attention, but after she dies, they go out in search of new gossip. Old Taupe’s death is a nonevent and is completely ignored because it offers no surprises; he was only useful as a foil to Ernestine, and after her death, he becomes a bore. In the end, his hut is unceremoniously dismantled and burned, just as his body is tossed into a pauper’s grave and forgotten.

Ultimately, the barren lives of Queneau’s characters, their search for thrills, their love of novelties, and their selfishness lead them to indulge in the biggest thrill of all: war. At the end of the novel, an absurd war breaks out between the French and a group called the Etruscans. A motley collection of frenzied, yet purposeless, assaults and counterassaults, the war lurches on, until it degenerates into total farce as the eight remaining French soldiers surrender to a demoralized thirty surviving Etruscans. This war—which began because Queen Orlini of the Etruscans became angry with Anatole, King of the French, over a game of bezique—ends because that seems to be the thing to do. After all the bloodshed, the battlefield nightmare, the diseases of the trenches, and the massive trauma occasioned by the killing, it is apparent to the survivors that the conflict meant nothing. In fact, the French hold a banquet to celebrate the war’s end, and the participants drunkenly banter with Mme Cloche about the weather and her love life.

At the end of The Bark Tree, Etienne and Mme Cloche separate after an argument about needing to relive life near a town, much like the one mentioned at the beginning of the novel, where flattened people go through only the motions of living. Thus, Queneau, while writing a novel seemingly devoid of structure, creates a plot in which the beginning and end flow into each other. In this merciless universe, Queneau appears to say, madness and violence will build until another absurd conflict arises. This slaughter will lead to a cessation of hostilities, which in turn will lead to truce, peace, and building resentment, which will lead again to war, ad nauseam.

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