The Origin of Man
If I had to describe this book in a single word: frustrating. Some literary works that lack linear (or any) plotting and indulge in monumental digression still manage to impart meaning and enlightenment, either through beautiful prose or expansive ideas or vibrant imagery. Three strikes and this novel is out.
The ostensible storyline, parsed into three sections, is that (sometime in the 1830s?) French customs officer Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur de Perthes visits a childhood friend, takes a trip to the seashore with a love interest, and has an English scientist refuse to confirm de Perthes’s discovery of evidence (chiseled flints) of “antediluvian” (i.e., Stone Age) man. De Perthes then triumphs when one of his diggers finds said antediluvian’s jawbone.
Montalbetti’s stream-of-consciousness prose jumps without warning between de Perthes’s point-of-view and inner monologue, the other characters’, and then to her own outside (and sometimes inside) the story – giving this novel all the coherence of a schizophrenic’s journal. It also results in odd anachronism.The reader is lucky to be granted one period per rambling paragraph (a swim in the Somme and subsequent drying off takes 15 pages), and this is the novel’s true weakness: its digressions are boring. Montalbetti also employs circular narrative devices, describing events for a “that’s how it could have happened if you want it to, but here’s what’s actually going on” effect…before beginning the mobius strip all over again. By the end, the reader witnesses Montalbetti arguing with de Perthes, literally trying to force him into finishing the story. The reader can sympathize. De Perthes was a historical person, and his life story would make for an engaging literary work of great depth. Expect to encounter this work in brief flashes while mired in the pages of The Origin of Man.