Linda Coverdale, Translator
(Seven Stories Press)
The narrator of The Emperor, C'est Moi isn't very good at sucking up to us, his readers. In fact, he makes an art of it, this not-sucking-up. If, as a result, you don't like him, don't worry about it: he's way out in front of you in terms of not-liking. Which he is only to happy to tell you. And which he does tell you, in short, declarative sentences that sit there insolently --- small, indigestible facts of unhappiness.
Here's how he starts off:
My name is Julien. Julien Hugo Sylvestre Horiot, but I'm called Julien. I am four. When something doesn't please me, I get angry. Too angry. I scream. I scream, but without words. I do not speak.
In fact, he does not speak, chew or crap. Obdurate on a monumental scale. Because Julien admits to part of the blame, the opening passage is not characteristic of what follows. Usually, he puts the fault out there on other people, who are boring, beneath his intelligence, generally insufferable. At the age of four, there is much drawing of lines in the sand, expressions of disgust, refusals to interact in any meaningful way with a world that is beneath him. The negativity of his world would make Samuel Beckett proud.
The book reads like a novel. But it is not. Because the narrator and author have the same name, it's an autobiography, though the book doesn't read like one, seeing as how it lacks the usual framing mechanisms of autobiographical exposition: place and time and circumstance --- and most of all, explanation. An interior autobiographical monologue? Why not? We all have one, and this particular one belongs to Hugo (né Julien) Horiot.
If The Emperor, C'est Moi were a novel, it would be a roman à clef, though Horiot's secret is not a hidden identity, but his condition: autism. The word does not appear in the book, anywhere, nor does any particular scene make the diagnosis evident. It isn't that there isn't bad behavior everywhere, because there is. It's just that the cause isn't specified. It feels like a lot of disaffected adolescent fiction: angry, accusatory.
The secret is, however, loudly trumpeted by the book's cover. The disclosure renders all of Hugo's rants understandable. Because the condition is enshrined in the DSM, the fault is not Hugo's. Nevertheless, it's difficult (for this particular reader, at least) to warm to a person so completely unyielding in his every expression. He doesn't seek understanding and gives no entry for (heaven forefend!) pity.
Witness his visit to the doctor/therapist (not clear which; it's a four-year-old telling the story):
Elevator, corridors, white floor. It's the same tiling but white, with little gray streaks. Same floor, different color. Same place, different zone. In this corridor there are plenty of doors. All identical. We stop before one of the them,, always the same one; sometimes it's open. We enter a dark office: shades pulled down, filtered light. It is a place for being bored.
Nothing major in that. Just general unhappiness. At the age of six, Julien decides to become Hugo (like most of the events in the book, an actual part of Hugo's story). With the usual force of his personality, he forces the change to happen. In his mind, he "kills" Julien, the boy who wouldn't speak, the boy who wanted to re-enter his mother's womb. It was, for him, an actual death, however figurative it may have been.
Hugo begins to speak and it looks like his hard edge is softening. But the name change/death of the old self changes little about Hugo's attitude, even though there is the barest of movement toward normalizing, a process he calls, characteristically, an "abdication."
Hugo must learn to lie to the world's face by hiding his pain. To speak is to lie. Well, I'll lie, since that is what's expected of me. Each word, each syllable that leaves my mouth represents a superhuman effort, because it is a compromise that I, Hugo, must make with others. I know that every step toward these others will make me increasingly dependent on them, and thus on you. I will have to accept being dependent on people whom I do not trust. Each word, each sound that comes out of my insides will be an abdication. Each step toward others will take me farther from my kingdom. Each word kills me. I walk on burning coals and I must learn to dance. Well, I will dance and maybe I'll grant you a smile from time to time. As for laughter we'll see later on. Above all: mustn't lose my balance.
Losing one's balance means losing one's kingdom.
The problem is living in the middle. For a person of Hugo's temperament (diagnosis), the everyday accommodations of life are more difficult than a take-no-prisoners, highly principled repudiation of normalcy.
Nevertheless, unlikely as it may seem (and as it usually seems to be), Hugo does find redemption. And it comes from a highly unlikely place for a person of his antisocial temperament: the theater. A person, one who doesn't like to lie or to deal with other people, finds his spiritual home in a world of make believe, a world of appearances. It is the complexity that attracts Hugo.
For the first time, I can breathe. Here I devote myself to my favorite game: inventing languages. With "new forms of art," as Treplieff says in The Seagull. A role is a language, writing is a language, mise-en-scene is a language. A language of images sounds, and signs. Learning to read one's feelings, sensations; learning to play and be played. Agreeing to interact with the Other, to share. The play of words, play of bodies, play of masks. Careful: one mask can conceal another. And that's what is amusing and strange.
Hugo finds himself in metaphor. Although irony and emotion are supposed to be the bête noire of people with autism/Asperger's, they prove to be the answer for Hugo. Again, this is fact: M. Horiot is an accomplished actor, director, writer in France. There was nothing in his prolonged negativity, his epic fits of temper in early life, to suggest that theater/metaphor/the arts would integrate him into life. A complex language of signs, symbols, actions, temperaments --- and words, ironically enough --- was what he was looking for.
Another strong-opinioned narrator, Humbert Humbert, adopted a very different MO from M. Horiot: he used his erudite charm to beguile the reader and disguise an offensive obsession. There may be a greater similarity between the two, however. Nabokov said he wrote Lolita after reading a story in a not particularly high-toned French newspaper. An ape in a zoo, said Nabokov, was given crayons and paper. The chimp obliged by drawing the bars of his cage. Hence, Lolita. And hence also The Emperor, C'est Moi.--- Richard Daverman