Mountain R is a 1996 novel by the French Oulipian writer Jacques Jouet (1947-) about a failed attempt to construct an artificial mountain. The Dalkey Archive published an English translation by Brian Evenson in 2004. The story is a dark satire told in three parts, from three different points of view. It begins with a speech by The President of the Republican Council, setting out the proposal for this grand projet and arguing that a 1,500 meter high mountain would bring in tourism, reduce unemployment and provide a fitting symbol for the greatness of the nation. The second part is a dialogue between one of the contractors involved in building Mountain R and his daughter, which gradually reveals shocking truths about the human cost of its construction. The third part is an excerpt from the trial of those responsible for the project's failure, recounted by another unreliable narrator, a novelist paid to write about Mountain R, whose full role in the enterprise becomes progressively more apparent.
As I began reading I thought back to The Man Without Qualities, a novel about a pointless national celebration that I read at about the same time the Millennium Dome fiasco was unfolding here. However, as a construction project driven by hubris, funded in murky circumstances and failing to leave anything worthwhile it actually reminded me more of several recent initiatives, some of them in London. For many years, cities have measured themselves on who can erect the biggest tower. In Mountain R the President begins his speech by complaining that the Republic, though magnificent already, 'looks like a flat-chested girl. Too bad! But we are going to alter her, the Republic ... we are here to act ... to give her what we can: a womanly figure.' It sounds like 'Northumberlandia', the proposal for a giant 'curvaceous woman' which I wrote about here in 2009 (it was subsequently built and opened in 2012).
I have discussed the construction of other artificial mountains here before, from the marble peak on a Greek island made sometime between 2550-2400 BCE, to the holy mount for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being in post-Revolutionary France. All such ventures share common traits, but perhaps the closest precursor to Mountain R that I have written about is the Mountain of Stability, centre piece of Emperor Huizong's great garden at Kaifeng, which led to instability in China as resentment rose over the costs of building it, until Huizong was deposed and his construction left in ruins. Mountain R is built by migrant workers who have to live in appalling conditions. There are an unknown numbers of fatalities as the authorities try to hide the true cost of the project. Reading this brought to mind what we have heard about the Qatar World Cup - see for example the BBC's 2015 report on the death toll there, which had been put then at 1,200 workers.
There was an article about Mountain R in The French Review by Oulipo scholar Warren Motte (whose actually crops up in the book as the name of an American funding body). He shows how the book is about language and the processes of narration, pointing in particular to a passage in which the third narrator compares the writing of a novel to a construction project. The failure to complete his novel mirrors the failure to complete the mountain. Motte has also provided a useful introduction to Jouet's work on the Dalkey Archive website. Of Mountain R he says that 'Jouet asks us to consider how we view monuments and how we tend to monumentalize our leaders, our progenitors, and the tasks we pursue, both individually and severally.'
Motte also discusses some of Jouet's other works and, although it has nothing to do with Mountain R, I can't resist ending here by quoting the first of Jouet's Poèmes de métro, which itself defines the Oulipian constraint involved in writing them. Something to consider, for those of us who use the London Underground everyday...
A metro poem is a poem composed
in the metro, during the duration
of a trip.
A metro poem has as many verses as
your trip has stations, minus one.
The first verse is composed in your
head between the two first stations
of your trip (counting the station
from which you departed).
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the second station.
The second verse is composed in
your head between the second and
third stations of your trip.
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the third station. And
One must not transcribe when the
train is in motion.
One must not compose when the
train is stopped.
The last verse of the poem is
transcribed on the platform of
your last station.
If your trip involves one or more
changes of subway lines, the poem
will have two or more stanzas.