When the mother of young Zazie wants to spend a weekend with her new boyfriend, she asks her brother Gabriël to look after the little girl. Zazie looks forward to spending time with Gabriël, because he lives in Paris and she loves the Métro. Much to her chagrin, though, the métro drivers are on strike. Gabriël makes it up to her by treating her to a day on the town, not hindered by the fact that the only Paris building he actually knows is the Eiffel Tower. He takes her along to the nightclub where he dances as a ballerina (!) and introduces her to a cast of increasingly stranger characters, in an increasingly stranger and more surreal storyline.
I bought this book, Zazie dans le métro by Clément Oubrerie (best known to English language readers for co-creating with Marguerite Abouet the engrossing Aya albums translated by D&Q – Joe) on a whim. The cover art looked a lot like the full-colour, full-sized albums that people like Joann Sfar or Pascal Rabaté have been making off late, and which I really can’t resist. I knew of a film with the same name, but didn’t make the connection. Only when I came home, and took a good look at it, I found out that the comic is based on a novel by Raymond Queneau. My fellow Oubapo enthousiasts will now probably literally roll on the floor laughing, as Queneau and his Oulipo movement is one of the shining examples of this continuing experiment with potential comics (and was the direct inspiration for Matt Madden’s masterful 99 Ways To Tell A Story, with his Exercices de Style).
Knowing this now put the book in a whole different perspective for me. The story, with its hilarious cast and quite weird plot turns, is only a device to allow the characters to play with language, use different registers in totally inappropriate circumstances, invent words and phrases and generally forget about language being a mode for communication. Zazie turns out to be a very precocious little minx, who knows a lot of filthy words, but not quite right, while the other characters too often seem to be using words they don’t really understand, or use in a slightly different way than you would expect them to be used. The only character who always says what he thinks, and then some, is the parrot.
Similarly, people play different parts, and act as if they’re different people – changing their persona as they see fit. In the end, Zazie’s visit to Paris is a rite de passage, an obligatory passageway into growing up.
I was quite awestruck by this book. I read it a few times, as the playfulness of the French can be daunting at times, but it never bored. Now here’s a book that should be translated – publishers, are you listening?
Zazie dans le Métro by Clément Oubrerie (based on the novel by Raymond Queneau), was published in 2008 by Gallimard Jeunesse.