The blurb has billed Sphinx as a love story that delves into the nightclubs and cabarets of afterhours Paris. But it is much more than that. It is not just the story but the way that it is told that makes the novel stand out.
Indeed, it is all very well to write any kind of novel. But how about writing a novel by deliberately imposing a constraint and then writing within its confines? Not that simple. This is what the writers from the ‘Oulipian’ movement chose to do. The most illustrative example is the author Georges Perec. He wrote his book ‘La Disparition’ (which I have not read) by not using words containing the letter E in the entire text.
Anne Garreta chooses to do something similar; making this the first novel by a female member of the Oulipo.
So where is the Oulipian constraint in Sphinx?
Sphinx, in very simple terms, is a love story between the narrator (who is never named) and A***, who is a dancer from America. Basically, this is not just a love story but a genderless love story. And that is its main conceit.
Throughout the novel, the gender of both the narrator and A*** is never revealed.
A glimpse into the plot then. It begins with the unnamed narrator reminiscing about the time when he or she met the dancer A*** in a cabaret in Paris.
It is revealed to us that the narrator is an intelligent student looking to major in theology but somewhere along the line is gripped by an infinite sense of boredom. It doesn’t help that debates and the classes in general lack intellectual rigour. Not surprisingly, the narrator starts drifting.
A priest tries to be a sounding board to the narrator and help provide some direction. They start meeting regularly and ironically these discussions take place in clubs and cabarets. One such nightclub, The Apocryphe, becomes a regular haunt.
The narrator then recalls the catastrophe that takes place in The Apocryphe, which leads to him/her taking up the temporary post of the resident DJ in that club.
And so began what seemed to me a new life, but what seemed to all those who knew me the beginning of a resigned and aimless wandering. The Padre neither encouraged nor discouraged me from this new path; after all, he had been partly responsible for leading me into it.
Post the shift at The Apocryphe, a tour of clubs and dives followed with a group of friends. That is how they end up in the Eden and where the narrator meets A***.
Over many meetings, the narrator relentlessly pursues A***, who finally relents. What follows therefore is a whirlwind relationship between the two. But it’s not always easy as society, bogged by stereotypes, is all too ready to condemn them. Nobody understands why they are together in the first place.
At the Apocryphe and everywhere we went, people made remarks about our striking dissimilarity. They teased me over the contrast in colour between our skins, they stressed the difference in our mannerisms: the impulsiveness of A***’s voice and gestures, that wild exuberance and openness to the world, which by comparison underscored my moderation and reserve. A*** in turn had to bear the incessant prattle about my religious and social background. They painted a picture of my incomprehensible oddities: my isolation; my taste for solitude strangely coexisting with a sudden dive into this world; an unheralded abandon of a university career for the improvised post of DJ. For want of any intelligible coherence, they assumed I must be harbouring some kind of vice or perversion.
This then is a novel about love, its difficulties and the unimportance of gender. The writing shines too. It is indeed a feat that Garreta could write such a novel and still manage to not reveal the gender. Certainly, it would have been a challenging task in the original language French, where the construction of verbs in a sentence, typically gives an idea of the gender of the subject.
What about its translation to English? Here the translator Emma Ramadan has to be applauded too. In an illuminating afterword, Ramadan has pointed out the challenges in translating such a text and how she had to bend or rewrite the text in such a way that the gender of the characters is not revealed and at the same time the essence of the text is not lost.
In a world where pre-conceived notions about gender, race, religion and identity form the fabric of modern society, Sphinx does a great job in ripping it apart.