One of the presiding motifs in Claude Simon’s The Jardin des Plantes is the image of a man – the author, thinly disguised as “S.” – looking in a bathroom mirror and examining himself, the objects in front of him, and the things he sees behind him over his shoulder. As S. playfully makes the mirror image of the room and objects behind him disappear and reappear simply by moving his arm or shoulder, these scenes subtly comment on the nature of autobiography.
At the core of The Jardin des Plantes is a single life-changing event. Over and over S. revisits the fateful days of early May 1940 when his meager, antiquated cavalry unit was quickly overrun by the advancing German army, leading to his capture, imprisonment, torture, and eventual escape. As he revisits his own numerous memories, the recollections of others, the published record, and the archival evidence he has unearthed of the events of those days, the end result is not a definitive story, but a rich, contradictory holographic recreation that presents a different perspective from every angle.
But other threads are woven around this crucial war story. There are excerpts from the trial of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky in which the Soviet judicial system defines him as a parasite. There is the story of the Italian painter Gastone Novelli, who, after being tortured by the Nazis, tried to escape civilization altogether by living with a remote Brazilian tribe. There are various scenes of S. being placed in the role of “the famous author” (Simon won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985), scenes that take place in cities around the world involving a seemingly endless parade of annoying bureaucrats, government handlers, inept translators, fatuous tour guides. (S. refers to this parade of the “representatives of the global intelligentsia” as the “sideshow phenomena.”) There is a sustained interview on the subject of fear with a journalist who seems set on predetermining the outcome. There is a visit with Picasso. There are ruminations on Proust, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and other writers. These various threads are sometimes presented as two ongoing columns of text side by side like a movie containing “several screens with different images running simultaneously.” As Simon noted, this is “impossible in speech of writing. But one can try all the same.”