"53 DAYS"

By Georges Perec

Edited by Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud

Translated from the French by David Bellos

Godine. 261 pp. $23.95

At the time of Georges Perec's death from cancer at 45, he had finished roughly half of "53 Days," on the surface a classic detective story. The opening chapters take place in a blisteringly hot African country called Grianta, a former French colony, and focus on the sudden disappearance from his hotel of a popular whodunit author named Robert Serval. Has Serval been killed? If so, by whom and why and how? Evidently, the reclusive writer foresaw that he was in danger, because he had given the French consul a sealed envelope, with precise instructions. If anything should happen to him, these pages were to be entrusted to our narrator, a local teacher, and to no one else.

Naturally, Serval has left behind a manuscript, a not quite complete mystery entitled "The Crypt." "Maybe," says the consul to the schoolmaster, "the keys to this puzzle are hidden in the book." And of course they are. "The Crypt" turns out to be "a detective novel in two parts, the second of which meticulously undoes everything that the first part tries to establish -- a classical device of many enigma-novels, taken here to an almost absurd extreme." The alert reader will immediately wonder whether "53 Days" will similarly dismantle itself.

"The Crypt" opens with the automobile mishap that kills a naval attache named Rouard, posted to the chilly northern country of Fernland. That apparent "accident" turns out to have been a carefully planned murder. (Or was it?) Among the suspects are a business tycoon, an American diplomat, the first secretary at the French embassy, and the mogul's beautiful daughter, who works as a belle-de-jour in a brothel secretly operated by her own father. When evidence points to the first secretary, he pleads with his old friend, Robert Serval, to help exonerate him. As in the novels of Ellery Queen, Robert Serval is both the author of his mysteries and their detective hero.

As Serval investigates this increasingly complex crime, he discovers a copy of a novel entitled "The Magistrate is a Murderer," by one Lawrence Wargrave. A reading of this thriller -- reminiscent of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None -- leads Serval to conclude that Rouard is still alive. (Those with good memories may recall that the judge in Christie's classic is named Lawrence Wargrave.) Eventually, the new facts exonerate the first secretary entirely. All the dramatis personae agree that the case is finally solved. But wait:

"Serval alone seemed not to share their certainty."

" `Unless. . . '

"All eyes turned toward the detective."

Why, wonders our narrator, does the manuscript break off just here? And how does it illuminate the disappearance of its author? Clearly, one must read between the lines for clues, else why would the actual Serval have been so solicitous that this typescript be kept for our narrator, a man with a taste for crosswords and puzzles? After studying the exceptionally neat pages, the teacher-investigator decides to track down the manuscript's typist, in the hope that he or she might have saved some of the original rough drafts. Lise Carpenter -- "a wispy girl with very black hair, almond eyes, and high, salient cheekbones" -- reveals that Serval dictated his text, but that one afternoon he did ask her to copy over a long passage from "The Koala Case Mystery," which he then inserted into his own book. Strangely, however, he changed exactly a dozen 12-letter words from the original: Lamentations became Benedictions, Fort de France became North Detroit, etc.

So two lists of 12 words of 12 letters. . . Anyone who's either read mystery stories or knows that Georges Perec was a member of OuLiPo -- the celebrated, even notorious Workshop for Potential Literature that employs mathematics in the creation of literature -- will immediately suspect a 12 by 12 letter square. If one lines up the dozen original words in tabular form and then plucks out the first letter from the first line, the second from the second and so on, the result spells out "La Chartreuse" -- an apparent reference to Stendhal's classic novel, La Chartreuse de Parme, which was famously dictated in exactly 53 days. (In a playful touch, the English translator has here contrived the second letter square to spell out "Bellosdunnit.") What is going on?

As our narrator reveals, "an inexplicable intuition has been nagging at my mind: that the truth I am after is not in the book, but between the books. That may sound senseless, but I know what I mean: that you have to read the difference, you have to read between the books, in the way you read `between the lines'." Such an injunction carries a whiff of deconstruction about it, but Perec makes sure that his impish playfulness keeps things light. There are, in fact, four books here, including one mentioned only in passing: Mathias Henrijk's "Od Radek" ("The Sinking").

In his novels, especially Life: A User's Manual, that Zolaesque cross-section of a modern apartment house, Perec often secreted homages to his friends, though few quite so obvious as this one to Harry Mathews and his early masterpiece, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. (Later on this same page, the narrator also mentions an obscure book by M. de Peiresc.) Still, La Chartreuse de Parme remains the primary lexical template and source for narrative puzzle pieces, subtly informing "53 Days" rather as The Odyssey does Joyce's Ulysses.

Alas, at just this point Perec died, leaving only notes to the remainder of his novel, the second half of which was intended to meticulously undo what we have just read, while making everything even more twisty and uncertain. Mathews and Roubaud present the surviving worksheets and drafts for this section, titled "Un R est un M qui se P le L de la R" -- an enigmatic-sounding code which alludes to a famous definition of the novel, borrowed by Stendhal from Saint-Real: "Un roman est un miroir qui se promene le longue de la route" -- A novel is a mirror walking along a road. Little wonder that there have been so many allusions to mirrors already in "53 Days." More important, the drafts suggest that the latter half of the novel would present a seemingly quite unrelated narrative, in which Robert Serval is a murdered businessman, who appears to have once served in the Resistance in that part of France called la Chartreuse. In these pages a detective named Salini now investigates the crime (and we remember that Salini was a lawyer detective in Life: A User's Manual). Was Robert Serval in fact a Resistance hero? Or was he the turncoat who betrayed a dozen British commandos, ultimately slaughtered by the Nazis (look again at that earlier name, War Grave)? Was he executed by some old comrades with long memories? Or very cleverly murdered by his estranged wife, Patricia? And, not least, how do all these varying scenarios relate to each other?

One of Perec's notes reads: "vertigo of explanations without end," followed by "at the end the narrator imagines a 3rd story which would be the contradictory exegesis of the 2 others." In an introduction to a German edition of the novel, editor Jacques Roubaud comments: "In `53 Days' life appears as a puzzle endlessly detroying its own solutions. The multiplicity of the explanations of a death, of a murder, forms an allegory of a life that does not know its own end." He adds that the references to the war years reminds us of Perec's innovative use of his own past in W, or the Memory of Childhood, or even, one might add, La disparition (brilliantly Englished by Gilbert Adair as A Void), the famous lipogrammatic tour-de-force written without using the letter E.

Sad as it is that Perec never finished "53 Days," his admirers will cherish the extensive notes for their glimpses into an ingenious mind. Members of OuLipo have long been divided over whether the hidden scaffolding of an Oulipian novel ought to be pointed out to the public (Harry Mathews said it shouldn't, Calvino that it should; some reviewers of La disparition failed to notice that the novel never used the letter E). But here we enter the workshop of this painstaking artificer, as he juggles words and plays with structure, makes lists, notes books to consult, sets up problems to solve. There are, we read, "nine ways in which the number 53 can figure in a Fibonacci series" (that is, a series in which a number is the sum of the two previous numbers, i.e. 7, 23, 30, 53). Most tantalizingly, Perec offers this reflection: "Completely flat style" -- Stendhal's own goal -- "with bravura passages"; he then enumerates 28 constraints "1 per chapter." These include the palindrome, lipogram, Mathews's algorithm and most of the other more notable Oulipian techniques (the intrigued should consult OuLiPo Compendium for definitions and examples). How many of these actually made it into the surviving manuscript -- and were they carried over into English? That is a mystery for other readers. Certainly, Perec would have made sure that every element in his text fitted as tightly together as the mortise-and-tenon work of a master cabinetmaker.

For now, "53 Days" reminds us that Georges Perec recognized, as do all writers and some readers, that novels are the products of artful calculation. They are contraptions designed to perform certain tasks, even if those tasks include making us laugh or weep. Still, to see Perec's legerdemain at its most dexterous one should start with either his masterpiece, Life a User's Manual, or a recent collection of short works, available from Penguin, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (don't miss "The Winter Journey"). To learn about the man himself, universally beloved, one can turn to the mammoth biography by David Bellos, Georges Perec: A Life in Words, or to Harry Mathews's brief and moving The Orchard: A Remembrance of Georges Perec. It is intolerable that so original, humane and exhilarating a writer should have died so young.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.