Christine Montalbetti, Western (2005)

May 19th, 2012 § 0 comments

Finally, all one can say about this – while the sapphire hue gradually becomes dominant – is that, among this troop of pitiful little thoughts, all bruised and indistinct, there’s one that’s steadier than the others, more robust, older, that fixes the gaze of our thirty-year-old on the wall in front of him, not because of any quality of the wall in itself, but because it is the ideal, neutral screen to project this thought upon; a thought unharmed by the jerky ups and downs of his rocking, a thought that was never made indolent by languid nighttime sleep, but remained strong and sure of what it wants, a thought whose power is at least partly based upon its longstanding and proven perseverance.  We ourselves still know nothing about this key and almost authoritarian thought, but let’s face it, it’s not hard to figure out that said thought is what will provide the overall motivation for our man, explaining his days in this place and lending his mind a purpose that, unknown thought it is, no doubt forms the horizon of his life wherever he may be, and which – we can tell from the sort of tension persisting even in his early morning apathy – he must never let out of his sight.

You can see pretty well now, you can even see perfectly, the sky is completely blue, punctuated by the white fluff of small, neat cirrocumulus, a really nice effect, and so I think the action can begin. (pp. 21-22)

The Western perhaps is the Americas’ gift to world literature.  There is something awe-inspiring in the stark, bleak landscapes, in the actions of the rugged, fierce cowboys/vaqueros who populate its wastes and its lowlands, fighting for justice (or for greed).  A good Western can invoke the best elements of a morality play, with the man with the white hat dueling with the man with the black hat.  In between, there are struggles revolving around self-reliance, how to make one’s way in an unforgiving locale.  These stories, at least in their most popular form, did not originate in settled, cultured Europe, but instead were the product of frontier life and the sacrifices and (sometimes evil) decisions that the frontiers people had to make as they moved into a hostile environment, often peopled with natives who resisted their advance and who resented the depredations of these invaders.

Today, the Western as a genre is nearly dead.  The frontiers have been tamed.  The natives have been eliminated or subdued.  John Wayne and Roy Rogers are in their graves and there is no need to retell their stories.  We have seen it all, perhaps.  We know how that gunfight at the O.K. Corral will turn out.  We anticipate, before becoming bored, what it means when a man wearing a black hat walks into a saloon.  We have satirized it in movies such as Blazing Saddles or reversed the myths in stories such as Cormac McCarthy’s excellent Blood Meridian.  What possible “new” ground could be trod in this desolate genre seemingly bereft of originality or interest?

French writer Christine Montalbetti in her 2005 novel (translated into English in late 2009 by Betsy Wing) Western manages to squeeze just one more ounce of water from that stone.  She deconstructs the Western genre, both literary and cinematic alike, in an artful fashion.  Instead of focusing on the “action,” what she does so adroitly here is examine in minute detail those overlooked moments that serve to define the scenes that follow.

The plot, unimportant as it is to the story, is that of a gunman seeking his revenge and preparing for a shootout.  But what’s intriguing about this tale is that Montalbetti concentrates on things such as the insects in the soil where the man is standing, on the wall where he is staring, on those teeny-tiny details which add atmosphere to a story.  In the passage above, a traditional Western writer might have stated in a sentence that the man was giving an intent stare while the sky was clear outside.  What Montalbetti does here is invert the story, making the reader focus on the “close up.”  Here we see the troubled thoughts, the almost diffident way in which the gunman attempts to focus himself in preparation for the action to follow.  It is akin to those ominous pauses in the movies before the showdown begins in earnest.

Montalbetti draws out these moments, turning what otherwise would be a humdrum, average duel into a psychological portrait of the gunman and of his surroundings.  The attentive reader will find him or herself taking these insights and perhaps applying them to any Western book or film previously seen or read.  This technique, although it can be wearisome to those who don’t want to think about what they are reading, adds so many layers of depth to the simple plot that the reading turns into a reflective exercise that meditates on the semantics of the Western itself.

Western is a short novel at 192 pages, yet its brevity belies its content.  Montalbetti takes us all the way through the course of the gunman’s preparation for the duel, keeping our attention focused on the surrounding details just long enough for the reader to appreciation what is transpiring, rarely overindulging and thus risking tedium at the most critical juncture of the novel.  Western adds so much to this nearly-moribund genre that it almost certainly will be a “fresh” read even for those readers who are well-versed in both the Western genre and in postmodernist literary techniques.  Highly recommended.

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