Welcome to the fourth installment of Sonia Mullett's column on out-of-print books, the serendipitous treasures that she finds on secondhand bookshop shelves. She provides an in-depth look at a different book each issue. This column examines Michel Jeury's 1972 Chronolysis (original title Le Temps Incertain).


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By Sonia Mullett


When it first appeared in 1972 Michel Jeury’s inventive masterpiece Chronolysis revived the stalled career of its reclusive author and ‘shook’, in the words of its editor, the French world of SF publishing. Inspired as much by the wave-theories of de Broglie as by the likes of Philip K Dick, Jeury’s hellish vision of an unbounded multiverse accessible via the unconscious human mind was a unique intervention in a crowded SF sub-genre: time travel.


To the genre’s familiar tropes, Jeury introduced a bio-chemical method. Time travellers take a drug or ‘mebsital’ which works on their body and psyche, breaking down barriers between their waking mind and unconscious, allowing them to explore the past in much the same way as they would experience a dream.  In just one example of his genius for creative neologisms Jeury calls this process ‘chronolysis’ – literally a breakdown (lysis) of time (chronos). Make no mistake, the ‘Chronolytic Universe’ these souls enter is real. As one character explains: ‘We’re in a border zone, with stretches of dreams and islands of reality’. For those who find themselves in this strange place, time becomes a highly subjective experience. Incidents recur and are mixed with memories, fears and desires. Jeury structures the book in much the same way.


So how to describe Chronolysis, with its disrupted narrative that favours nightmarish repetition over conventional causality? Thomas Pynchon let loose on an episode of Quantum Leap? Or, maybe Back to the Future reimagined as a terrifying anxiety dream? Jeury, modestly, told an interviewer from Le Monde that his intention was to produce a Francophone version of Simak’s fix-up novel City. And, indeed, Chronolysis is the first in a series of standalone novels that take place in the same imaginary world. But it’s much more than a homage to pulp Americana and difficulties in summarising the plot are as much a testament to the book’s visionary quality as an exercise in frustration.


In a sense it is simply a detective novel: an assortment of facts are out of order and must be put back in sequence to ascertain the truth. Scientist Dr. Robert Holzach, a time traveller, or more specifically a ‘psychronaut’, from the year 2060 has been tasked with finding out what happened, in 1966, to one Daniel Diersant, a harassed employee of a multinational pharmaceutical company (a convenient shorthand for evil if ever there was one). Diersant has suffered some kind of accident of which he is unaware. Merged with Diersant’s personality Holzach slowly pieces together the facts of the case. Jeury has fun dropping clues: the position of the stars, in particular, is constantly referred to because it points to the time of year Daniel was sacked: before or after an appointment at which he seems to have suffered the mysterious calamity?


Standing in Holzach’s way are some very nasty authoritarian types, the fascistic ghosts of a late-twentieth-century ‘Industrial Empire’. This is Jeury’s dystopian vision of the near future. He imagines the Empire growing out of the powerful corporations of his own day and holding sway through the 1980s and into the 1990s, its rule ultimately ended by a popular revolution. Holzach’s wider mission is to determine the Empire’s exact origins. Understanding what happened to Daniel Diersant is somehow key to this. But agents of the Empire are hiding in the Chronolytic Universe, from where they try to mount a comeback by gaining control of the psychronauts. To this end, they disrupt Daniel’s memories in an attempt to drive Holzach insane.

Just how he ended up there is all part of the mystery as chronolytic drugs weren’t thought to have been developed until sometime after his accident.  In the Indeterminate the past is less a foreign country than an explosion of multiplicities, something the psychronauts think they can use to achieve immortality. But would anyone want to be stuck in the past or, for that matter, their own unconscious?  Daniel’s is certainly full of the childhood demons of his Catholic upbringing – a particular concern of the author who remarked in a TV interview: ‘Fear always occupies the imagination. We start out with fear of hell, even if we don’t believe in it. Most people have had a Catholic education. It sticks in kids’ minds, this fear of hell’. Coupled with his own soul-destroying workplace anxieties, Daniel’s fears threaten to suffocate him in a perpetual hell of his own making (complete with fire and maniacal demons in the closing stages). But the way to redemption, liberty and a kind of heaven is derived from the same source. If Daniel can let go of his fear to fulfil his own desires, he may be able to achieve a kind of personal freedom. In the end Jeury champions this.


Chronolysis is a complex novel that deserves to be more widely known. Rarely for French SF, this and much of Jeury’s subsequent work was translated and came out in a number of US editions (Chronolysis was reissued in the original translation as recently as 2010), but these may have passed the casual reader by. Certainly the original 1980 English translation of Chronolysis, which has not been updated for the 2010 edition, is inept and often baffling. The opening sentences ‘Robert Holzach stood up and the room came to life, like a peaceful landscape from the past. A brown cow continued grazing in a green meadow’ presents a confusing simile. Rooms conceivably ‘come to life’ in a variety of situations, but when can they be said to do so in the manner of a peaceful landscape from the past? By ignoring details in the French text the translator has missed the fact that the picture on the wall is a moving one, a clever feature of this futuristic world. It’s the picture, ‘le décor de la chambre’, which stirs into life rather than the room. Perhaps a better translation would have been: Robert Holzach got up and the picture on the wall stirred into life. It was like a peaceful country scene of old, a brown cow grazing in a green field for all eternity. The bit about eternity (‘paissait éternellement’) is important: it introduces a major theme of the novel.


On another occasion the translation refers to ‘a pink elephant like the one egghead professors of Anglo-Saxon literature see when they are tipsy.’ Now, seeing pink elephants when you are drunk is a familiar device of Anglophone (specifically North-American) literature, and it is literature in the English language that Jeury has in mind, rather than anything to do with the Anglo-Saxons of the Early Middle Ages. The French use ‘anglo-saxon’ as a cultural catchall for the English-speaking world. A translator should know this. Such examples pile up.


The poor translation of Chronolysis no doubt contributes to a frustrating read, making a difficult but interesting work appear needlessly vague. Jeury, who died in January of this year, deserves better treatment.

"In the Indeterminate the past is less a foreign country than an explosion of multiplicities"

The Empire is indisputably bad news, but this isn’t a simple battle between good and evil. Jeury remains ambivalent about Holzach’s socialistic future world, preferring to concentrate on Diersant’s predicament.  The focus of Chronolysis quickly settles on Daniel, a patsy of both Holzach and the Empire. Daniel is stuck in the ‘Indeterminate’ – a space located in ‘Uncertain Time’ – where sequences from the past are replayed with minor or major variation, and nightmares are made flesh.

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