Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023
The Inquisitory has no beginning, middle, or end. It does not take a group of characters and lead them through a series of complications to a resolution of any kind. Instead, the entire novel is a series of questions and answers that begins abruptly, develops no patterns of theme or conflict, and ends inconclusively. No authorial commentary is provided to establish a context, and there is no punctuation except for an occasional comma in the longer answers. After a few pages, the reader becomes aware that the interrogator is an officer of the law who is questioning an old man about the disappearance of a servant who, like the old man, had been employed at Chateau de Broy, the estate of two unnamed “gentlemen.” The fate of the servant, however, is soon lost in the welter of wide-ranging questions and detailed answers. Beyond this bit of abortive plot—little more than the device for setting the interrogation in motion—the reader is constantly frustrated in his attempts to find a thread of narrative to follow in the labyrinth of text. Furthermore, the old man is deaf, and the questions are apparently written out for him and transcribed by a recorder.
The title of the novel is itself unusual. The French word inquisitoire is apparently a neologism, translated by the obsolete English word “inquisitory”—in effect, another neologism. The intensity of the protracted interrogation is perhaps best suggested by translating inquisitoire as “grilling” or “third degree.”
Despite the plotlessness of the old man’s rambling testimony, however, the overwhelming accumulation of detail—page after page of street layouts, room furnishings, and so forth—begins to produce its own effect, especially as the foibles and personal entanglements of various local figures are quickly sketched. It is as if a gifted dramatist had created an enormous set, crowded with the minutiae of daily life, and put an endless sequence of walk-ons in the background, while the audience waits restively for a protagonist who never appears. Gradually, the audience shifts its attention to the elaborate scene painting and the petty minidramas of the walk-ons.
Although the official’s ostensible purpose in the interrogation is to investigate the servant’s disappearance, he reveals a salacious preoccupation with the habits of the two gentlemen at the Chateau de Broy. The two men are apparently homosexuals—although their servant balks at discussing this fact—and their bohemian soirees are always sybaritic, often orgiastic. Moreover, the gentlemen’s lives are colored by a faintly expressed suspicion that their prosperity derives from transactions in drugs and prostitutes. Nevertheless, the man is discreet about his employers’ predilections and remains loyal to them. The questioner’s insistent prodding eventually elicits a panorama of the life around the village of Sirancy and the nearby town of Agapa. More than six hundred inhabitants are named, and some of them star in their own brief dramas as re-created by the old man.
The interrogee’s own life provides by far the most interesting vignette. Halfway through the interrogation, he reluctantly discloses that he was married for ten years and has fathered a son. The son, Claude, succumbed to meningitis when he was eight, and two years later, the wife, Marie, also died. He has now been a widower for ten years. The tale of their married life is bizarre. While working for an eccentric couple, the Emmerands, he and his wife had been drawn into their employers’ spiritualist practices. Mme Emmerand was a medium, and the old man suspects her of having caused Claude’s death simply to have a dead child with whom to talk. The old man is just as superstitious as the Emmerands, and he is sure that he caused their deaths by pricking several photographs of them with pins.
The old man’s tales about the villagers frequently have a scandalous sexual element. His account of the Emmerands leads him, for example, to tell of an adulterous affair between two of the couple’s friends, M. d’Eterville and Mme Flammard. Although the old man phrases his story prissily, with apologies for the more lurid details, it is clear that he took a Peeping Tom’s pleasure in what he observed. M. Flammard overlooked his wife’s liaison with the influential d’Eterville because Flammard wanted to curry favor with her lover. The old man sensed this and kept a close eye on the romance, even spying through the window on the couple’s lovemaking.
The old man’s voyeurism is only a mild perversion compared to the criminal compulsions visited upon Johann, a servant of the Grossbirke family. Johann talked a weak-witted young man named Stoffel into helping to plot the murder of his own girlfriend, and then joined him in committing necrophilia. Johann then repeated his criminal acts upon two other young women before the police finally dug up the three corpses in the vacationing Grossbirkes’ cellar. The story of Johann is related in the context of a long summary of sexual misdoings in the neighborhood, a summary in which the questioner obviously takes a lively prurient interest.
The piece de resistance of the rambling chronicle is probably the recollection of the elaborate evening party hosted by the man’s two gentlemen. He tells the whole story, including the provisioning of the party with about seventy bottles of Johnny Walker whiskey, mountains of forcemeat balls, and a dish made of brains and rice with mushrooms. The old man remembers all the preparations and adorns his story with digressions and asides (“perhaps I did take a swig at Fifine’s Rue des Trouble-Fete yes perhaps I did, the poor woman had been very lonely since Florent died”). The questioner’s zeal for information about the fete extends to such questions as “How many statues are there along the main drive,” a query that leads to a long recital of the statues of Jupiter, Diana, and the malapropistic “Mynerve the patron saint of philosophers.” Such epic recall is redeemed from tedium largely by the old man’s colloquial garrulousness, and it gives a compensating intricate texture to a social history deprived of structure.
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