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Book review: Michael Dirda reviews 'Hocus Bogus' by Romain Gary (& Emile Ajar)

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Naturally, the media wanted to know more about the mysterious Émile Ajar -- at least until a certain Paul Pavlowitch conveniently came forth as the man behind the pseudonym. But Pavlowitch was the son of Romain Gary's cousin. Some journalists started to probe more deeply.

Gary desperately wanted to keep secret that he had written the Ajar novels, if only because nobody is allowed to win the Prix Goncourt more than once. What to do? He retreated to Switzerland and in two weeks produced "Hocus Bogus," publishing it with the support of his cousin and frontman. In its first-person pages Pavlowitch recounts the whole Ajar adventure, showing clearly that he is the "onlie begetter" of the novels. But why all the mystery? Because Pavlowitch, as his extraordinary writing style reveals, is certifiably insane and frequently delusional.

In truth, "Hocus Bogus" is an utterly convincing impersonation of an artistically gifted schizophrenic, worthy to stand on the same shelf as Paul Ableman's classic "I Hear Voices" and Louis Wolfson's "Le Schizo et les Langues." At the book's kaleidoscopic climax, Pavlowitch actually accuses his famous writer relative of trying to take credit for the Ajar novels and for spreading the hurtful rumors that their actual author is . . . Romain Gary. Thus, with a magician's flourish, "Hocus Bogus" put paid to those very rumors: Pavlowitch was obviously Ajar.

Nowadays, we can more fully appreciate the tour de force that Gary brings off: As Bellos observes, the book is simultaneously "entirely fictional and yet contains almost nothing but the strict truth." Moreover, by "writing as someone else pretending to be someone else and also quite mad, Gary was at last free to say what he had to say as himself." To read "Hocus Bogus" in Bellos's superb translation is to marvel at its dizzyingly distorted syntax ("I don't speak Danish, but not well enough"), constant wit ("reptiles are always first in the firing line when it comes to hate speech") and sheer energy.

Many of Pavlowitch's remarks actually sound like those distorted aphorisms that the writer Harry Mathews dubbed "perverbs": "When you get a dead man on the line, it goes on forever." "You can't drown a fish just because you're a surrealist." On every page there's a bit of skewed "Hocus Bogus" wisdom: "In Denmark ambulances don't wail as sharply as ours do. Perhaps it's because there's less suffering in Denmark and so they don't need to scream so loud."

Sometimes Pavlowitch/Ajar/Gary sounds practically metaphysical: "Chairs make me particularly afraid because their shape suggests a human absence." And surely many of us can share the author's fear of crosswalks: "Given the nature of the motor car, pedestrian crossings are the places you're most likely to get run down. They're narrow and well defined, and the guy with his foot on the pedal can aim straight at you."

Most of all, "Hocus Bogus" returns again and again to the nature of writing and the literary marketplace: "If it's junk, it'll be called nonfiction, or witnessing, or life writing. Life writing is always garbage because of the subject matter. . . . Write us something along those lines of no value whatsoever, and that will make it an authentically human document."

Like Max Beerbohm's "memoir" of Enoch Soames or the hoax poetry of Australia's Ern Malley, "Hocus Bogus" blurs genres and dances on the line between fiction and nonfiction. But there's no denying the truth of its humor and angst: "Every time a new day dawns, I open the window and shout for help." "Love is just a word with a prettier song than the others."

Visit Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.


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