The Map and the Territory – the book that made 2011 less tedious but not less painful

Writer: Michel Houellebecq
Translator for the English language: Gavin Bowd
Publisher for the English language: William Heinemann-Random House, 2011
Original title: La carte et le territoire
Original French Edition by Flammarion, 2010

Pinch me if I am dreaming. Or rather pull this knife out of my heart; I am awake and yes, I do acknowledge the pain.

In a time span of 50 years we are told the life story of the artist Jed Martin and his encounter with the writer Michel Houellebecq. The main part of the novel is a story of professional success, backed up by passive relationships and voluntary isolation. The artist’s figure fits to the stereotype of the willingly socially outsider who makes it in the world as opposed to another stereotype of the macho artist (see Picasso) who nevertheless also  made it in the same world. Both come along from the creepy backyard of the writer; but actually not. In this book everyone has found their position in the world and even more carry a certain nobility. The same do the three series of artworks made at the beginning, at the pick and at the end of the artist’s life. It is hard to distinguish to what extent humour plays a role when formalism (the how weighs more than the what) is mentioned as a biased way of making or seeing art. To that I would comment that it is much easier to describe a work than to make it. Houellebecq is  in favour of painting within the visual arts but doesn’t let his artist fall in the sphere of banality; he also does photography and video in the end, even using complicated software made especially for him. Mostly in but also around the atelier, this first part of the book establishes a human warmth; in the frame of the expected peculiarity of course.

Then, with a clean-cut we are thrown into a police investigation. The images drawn and the surrounding script are references to the TV series of the last decade which have put us at ease with details of our insides and stories connected to them. The writer entrusts in art (his art) his own death. The more details he gives about it, the further away he can walk from it in real life. Triumphantly, art saves lives.

Yet, the absolute triumph comes at the closing of the novel when Houellebecq drives us back into the woods. This could be a reference to himself (The possibility of an island), but I take it more as an obsession (wish or fear) that has become artistic vision. The years pass and the artist lets nature devour his personal history and all the things related to him. Nature simply triumphs on man and man as an intelligent being documents his fading away while it actually happens.

The novel has a strong plot and depth and atmosphere. It was accused as being too smooth for the writer’s capacity and maybe it is. However, the overall  irony and the total destruction of everything we believed as settled, written with clarity and passion, do point at Michel Houellebecq, writer.

P.S. 1 It is good that the artist destroyed the painting where Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst divide the artworld. The concept itself is as schematic as the impersonation of Death by Brad Pitt.

P.S. 2 Isolation when the eyes of an audience are on you can be a fulfilling state; almost a luxury. Think of isolation when you devote yourself to your work without feedback from anywhere. That is what it means to float in the world, alone.

We'll meet again, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 100x140 cm

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