The Garden, by Louis Armand. Minneapolis, Minnesota: 11:11 Press, September 2020. 156 pages. $15.00, paper.
Might we partake in hashish and focus a high and light mind on this text that rolls unencumbered of final punctuation for 156 pages we would be as magically transported as if reading while sober: The Garden by Louis Armand is that good. Circling back (as the narrative itself does), it is still important to understand that the reading process and experience is what this book is all about. It began as a notebook documenting the author’s travels in 1994 in Morocco and Western Sahara with Dekaro, “an Italian photographer and anarchist,” or so the jacket copy states. This copy from the publisher also mentions references in the text such as the Book of Genesis, Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and the medieval North African Muslim sex manual, The Perfumed Garden of Sheik Nefzaoui, to give us some forewarning of the territory ahead. I confirm the presence of those references and also the thematic territory they bring with them.
I’m reviewing the reading experience because I don’t want to give anything away. There is a narrator, characters emerge, they do things, think things, and feel things. Some fall away, some carry to the end. The end is beautiful and let me give it away just a little: there is no final punctuation. And since the experience of reading this book is personal, it’s best that I describe around the experience for you.
Originally from Australia, Louis Armand is a novelist and poet, and both formal categories merge here in The Garden. On the page it looks like dizzying chaos and feels quite similar for the first few pages until you find your footing. The Garden opens, not with morning light, not with waking and rousing and dawning, but with what comes before, what precedes beginning. “eyes lips dreams then night goes first nothing then night in the beginning before time in the confrontation of light & intractable in the dawn of the word tangled in branches of tv static …” the first three lines read.
There is a resonance of, or even direct reference to, the opening of the most famous western novel set in Morocco. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles begins, “He awoke, opened his eyes.” That first chapter section is about an awakening to place. In the rolling rhythms of The Garden an awakening to place feels like a constant.
To call The Garden derivative though would be to miss the point. It’s easy to feel Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Pierre Guyotat (particularly the novel Eden, Eden, Eden), and even Jack Kerouac and Thomas Bernhard, in your reading while picking up direct references to The Bible and Bosch, and what Armand is telling you is that it’s okay to feel those things. Trust your feelings. This is a book that gasps for you to perform an aesthetic genealogical hermeneutic on it.
Most importantly it is a book of place and the feelings, resonances, place can bring. Some ethnographers define place as “space plus meaning,” and that is conveyed in Armand’s running text. Morocco is a place of the Western imagination, a place to lose oneself and reflect back on oneself. Beyond that Orientalism, Morocco is a place with its own history and own layers of meaning barely seen or understood by western eyes. Fortunately, many of those rise up through Armand’s observations.
The finest companion to this book is Roland Barthes’ Incidents, a collection of fragmentary observations supported by gorgeous photographs by Bishan Samaddar. I couldn’t help but return to Samaddar’s images while reflecting on Armand’s The Garden. Incidents collects “immediate” reflections by Barthes as he perambulates or lounges contemplatively in Paris and Southwest France in three short pieces, and then Morocco in a section spanning one hundred pages. This kind of writing was quite freeing and somewhat “novelistic” (though without plot or character) for Barthes since he was not writing about something, but allowing the writing to be a thing unto itself. In an essay from The Rustle of Language (1984), Barthes almost gleefully explains what he is doing here, “I am putting myself in the position of someone who does something, and not of someone who talks about something.”
The photographs by Samaddar capture people moving, lively markets, storefronts, landscapes, the sea, and even candid shots of conversations just around a corner. Next to a moody collage of four dark images, disparate but harmonious, there is a page with only one fragment by Barthes: “Ramadan: the moon will soon appear. We have to wait another half hour to make love: ‘I’m beginning to dream. Is that allowed?’ ‘I don’t know.’” His use of economy and vividness is perfect here. The feeling brings me back to The Garden.
My recommendation is to cordon off a few hours. Pick your poison (coffee, tea, etc.) and apply it gingerly so as not to let it overtake the text, but enhance the reading experience. Start reading; let it roll. Take a regular sip or puff. Never question where you are or what is happening. When the book is done rest. Give it a night, maybe a day before you think about it. Now confront the memory. What do you see? What do you feel? That which lingers is The Garden.
Jordan A. Rothacker is a writer who lives in Athens, Georgia, where he received a MA in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia. He also received a BA in Philosophy from Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, the state in which he was born. His essays, reviews, interviews, poetry, and fiction have been featured in such publications as The Exquisite Corpse, Guernica, Bomb Magazine, Entropy, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Brooklyn Rail, Rain Taxi, Dead Flowers, Literary Hub, and The Believer. Rothacker is the author of the novels: The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015); And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016); and My Shadow Book by Maawaam (Spaceboy Books, 2017); and the short story collection, Gristle: weird tales (Stalking Horse Press, 2019). 2021 will see Rothacker’s first nonfiction collection, Dead Letters: Epitaphs, Encomia, and Influence (Reprobate Books). For publishing news visit jordanrothacker.com.