The “Mr. Bouvier” of THE SCORPION-FISH is a Swiss writer-historian who has been traveling for some time, and has ended up, somewhat ignominiously, on a small island off the coast of India; he is tired, poor, unsure of himself, physically and psychically ill, and very prone to all manner of foreign influences. His grotesque observations may be quinine-induced; or they may be the natural result of the scorching heat; or they may be, as his unsympathetic mother suggests, the habitual negativism of a man who is out of sync with the universe.
Stylistically, Bouvier’s book is a peculiar blend of Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, and Franz Kafka. The levitating priest who has forgotten how to pray; the half-blind watchmaker; the avaricious, cruel street urchins; and the shopkeeper who is so fat that she never rises from her seat to help a customer would all be very comfortable in Dickens’ THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP. The character “Ba-o-u-vi-e-rr Sahib,” early in the novel, becomes engrossed with the abundant local varieties of insects. He describes, at length, a tremendous war, just outside his room, between a frenzy of mating termites and a patrol of red ants defending their territories. That episode, and others like it, put one strongly in mind of Thoreau’s “battle of the ants” in WALDEN. Bouvier surpasses Dickens’ romanticism and Thoreau’s naturalism, however, when he succumbs to the superstitions and religious vagaries of the local residents. His delirious walk to the wicked town of M---, where he is repelled from entering by evil magic spells, transports the reader to an uncanny, bug-infested world of the mind, not unlike Gregor’s in Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS.
THE SCORPION-FISH is Bouvier’s fourth book, but the first to be translated into English. He is fortunate in having a translator, Robyn Marsack, who is equal to the challenge of his complex style.