Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel

François Rabelais The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1553)
A pedant might point out that the satirical writings of sixteenth century Franciscan monk François Rabelais might not really qualify as science-fiction in quite the same way as, for example, an episode of Blake's 7; but persons bringing Blake's 7 to the table have already betrayed themselves as simpletons and forfeited their stake in the argument so far as I'm concerned. Blake's 7 was bollocks even at the time, and Gargantua and Pantagruel features both giants and toilet humour, which is good enough for me. Some might say that's an unfair or even ludicrous comparison, but they're wrong.

No-one seems quite able to agree on the identity of the first modern novel, and the works of both Cervantes and Swift have been suggested as candidates presumably on the grounds of their having some sort of narrative progression. Whatever the case may be, it probably wasn't Gargantua and Pantagruel, the collected tales of a giant and his son belonging firmly in the tradition of early novels wherein people have long conversations about stuff. True, our heroes - mainly the giant Pantagruel and his human sidekick, Panurge - embark upon a series of adventures, visiting islands populated by the sort of beings which kept sixteenth century monks awake at night, notably a giant who eats windmills - but the ensuing japes and scrapes remain secondary to the discourse they inspire, representing a subtle difference of emphasis to the somewhat more dynamic Gulliver's Travels. This isn't a criticism. Simply an acknowledgement of this being an earlier work reflecting the efforts of an entirely different author.

Like Swift, Rabelais found endless entertainment in jokes about things plopping out of arses and landing upon human heads. Thus do we have the term Rabelaisian which may be applied equally well to both Gulliver's Travels and Viz comic, or at least Viz comic when it was funny. This was all something of a revelation for me, my previous experience of sixteenth century monks (which is more extensive than you might suspect) very much typecasting them as pious sorts with an abiding love for both Jesus and the Pope. Rabelais spends a lot of time chuckling over turds thrown as missiles, people drowning in lakes of piss, couples rubbing their bacon together, as he calls it, and taking the St. Michael out of God's alleged Earthly representative. He also spends a great deal of time discussing human concerns, society, morality and so on, and with an insight that seems refreshingly honest and open considering the writing of at least some of his contemporaries. I'm looking at you here, Fr. Sahagún.

Gargantua and Pantagruel is alternately both gripping and hilarious whilst at other times being somewhat repetitive and lacking in the energy which made Swift so engrossing, although in all fairness I  suspect this may be down to my being something of a thickie where the classics are concerned, so jokes about Pythagoras or Roman emperors tend to be wasted on me. As a satirical novel, it's pleasantly devoid of the misanthropy which infects the later books of Gulliver's Travels and is probably funnier in places, but despite all there may be in its favour, sadly it just hasn't aged as well.

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