Captain Cap (vol.1)
by Alphonse Allais; translated from French by Doug Skinner
Black Scat Books, California, US, 2013
Absurdist Texts & Documents Series – No.11
60 pp., illus. perfect-bound. Trade, $14.00
Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth
The translation into English of Captain Cap as the first in a series of three is both welcome and very timely. It is welcome since the Absurdist Texts & Documents Series by Black Scat Books project has filled an important void since the only other English venture into Allais’ writing, The World of Alphonse Allais, translated by Miles Kingston and published in hardback by Chatto & Windus in 1976, was made available in a paperback in 2008. But apart from long awaited, Captain Cap also comes at a timely moment because of the fact that its ironies are particularly opposite today as we witness global intellectual colonisation. The importance of not forgetting about the French context and its originality for a true understanding of this text was underlined by the former director of the National Library of France Jean-Noël Jeanneney when he launched a counter-attack against the American (U.S.A) imperialism by Google Books in which search results for European writers initially were mostly provided in English, (which resulted in the establishment of the Europeana Libraries - http://www.europeana-libraries.eu/). The first book that Jeanneney showed in the course of recent documentary ‘Google and the World Brain’ (BBC, 2013) was Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which, without wanting to be overly chauvinistic, does put things in the right order. He dryly remarks (in French with English sub-titles) that on being confronted with the gift of a small thermo flask, brought to him by a Google Book VP in order to win him over, it was clear to him that they clearly did not understand who the director of the National Library of France actually was, or better, what he (commercially) represents. The documentary also identified similar misunderstandings or even better ‘misreadings’ by Google Books when, for example, the initial cataloguing of Walt Whitman’s famous book of poems ‘Leaves of Grass’ went under Gardening, and when it failed to recognize that Japanese books need to be scanned vertically rather than horizontally, turning any search result in complete nonsense. Such faux pas are hilarious after the event rather than the absurd way in which Allais’ texts actually points to – even anticipates - these kinds of dangers in an indirect or implicit way. So aside from the sheer pleasure of meeting an old friend, his observations have relevance now more than 100 years later.
The importance of Allais in the French speaking world is clear amongst other things in the fact that his Captain Cap’s proclamation “Loin d’être l’apanage de certains, l’assiette au beurre doit être le privilège de tous” is today still used in the online version of the Larousse dictionary as an example of the use of the word ‘assiette’ (http://www.larousse.com/en/dictionaries/french/assiette/5827). Inevitably something gets lost in the traffic between languages, and, in this case, the ‘assiette au beurre’ proclamation becomes in Doug Skinner’s current translation “Far from being the privilege of a few, the pork barrel must become the privilege of all”. Pork barrel alludes to a typical American kind of politics and might be the closest you can get to the French idea but alas some important information does get lost. L’Assiette du Beurre was one of a series of satirical magazines that existed around the turn of the 19th century in Paris, and Allais was one of its contributors. Born in 1854 in Honfleur, Normandy in the same street as Erik Satie, with whom he later collaborated, he published Captain Cap: His Ideas, His Adventures, His Drinks in 1902, a few years before his death in 1905.
Allais, together with Alfred Jarry, remains highly respected as one of France’s truly great humorists, brilliant in his subversion of truth and reality. A demonstration of which is the fact that in 1954 the literary Prix Alphonse-Allais was instigated with Ionesco as its first laureate. However fictional Allais’ Captain Cap may seem, rather like Jarry’s Ubu, he did exist, as Doug Skinner points out, in his informative introduction. In the hands of Allais he just becomes quite a lot more active than the original, running to get elected in the 9th arrondissement, 2nd district of Paris. Elected as what exactly, however, stays unclear. Captain Cap is the hero who was the launcher of shooting stars while a starter at the Conservatorium, the discoverer of the meat-mines of Labrador, and maybe most noteworthy, the fighter of bureaucracy. In short he becomes larger than life and absurd in every way. It also becomes apparent that in spite of all his strengths, he was not elected but disappeared. However, in order to help with drinking away one’s sorrows there is a whole section of rather stiff cocktails at the end of the book that probably reveal Captain Cap’s true character the best.
As a frequent user of the holorhyme or holorime in which each sentence gets a hidden meaning, Allais was an important influence on Duchamp who relished in tongue-in-cheek wordplay in his oeuvre to which the significance of his French origin all too often seems to be forgotten. Allais frequently exhibited at the Salon des Arts Incohérents and was editor-in-chief of the humoristic journal Le Sourire. At the same time he was a highly critical commentator of (French) politics, something that also becomes clear reading between the lines of Captain Cap. The fictive play with reality that, as in Jarry’s pataphysics, often seems to reveal much more about reality than a pure scientific approach, becomes clear in Allais’ so-called abstract drawings and compositions such as ‘First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow’ (Carré blanc, 1883) and ‘Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (1897): Masterpieces of irony that resonate with today’s conceits.
This publication of Captain Cap is a little gem. It is wonderful that not-for profit publisher Black Scat Books, which seems to operate in true pataphysical tradition with former bookstore owner Norman Conquest (sic) as its ‘Président-Fondateur’ clearly respecting its French origins, has taken the initiative to bring Allais’ text to the attention of the English-speaking world. Its highly recommended blog blackscatbooks.com proclaimed Monday 18 February, usually known as Presidents’ Day, as Allais Day, “A day of celebration for all who are sick to death of President’s Day. Have a drink! Buy a book! And vote for Captain Cap!” Perhaps now more than ever it is important to just do that and keep reading as many languages as possible in order to get between the lines.