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Engineers in Novels No. 1: The Mise-en-Scène

Six hardcover books lay on my desk. My hand reached the stack and pulled out one copy randomly. Hence started my series reading and review of “engineer novels.” I had no idea the first novel I opened was going to be the exact antithesis of engineering, if the latter means logic, predictability, and above all, tangibility. Reading The Mise-en-Scène turned out to be a months-long journey full of confusion, frustration, at times anger, and several attempts to give up. The reading experience, however, supplied a perfect trope for the hero in this novel: Lassalle, an engineer who finds himself constantly “engineered” by an untamed terrain of nature and society he has been commissioned to modernize.

By: Denver Tang

Six hardcover books lay on my desk. My hand reached the stack and pulled out one copy randomly. Hence started my series reading and review of “engineer novels.” I had no idea the first novel I opened was going to be the exact antithesis of engineering, if the latter means logic, predictability, and above all, tangibility. Reading The Mise-en-Scène turned out to be a months-long journey full of confusion, frustration, at times anger, and several attempts to give up. The reading experience, however, supplied a perfect trope for the hero in this novel: Lassalle, an engineer who finds himself constantly “engineered” by an untamed terrain of nature and society he has been commissioned to modernize.

I was never able to figured out the exact location where the story took place, but several online sources suggest the story is set in Morocco, when it was still France’s “sphere of influence.” Lassalle, a French geoengineer or mining engineer, whose exact identity is not made clear in the novel, is sent to survey the Djebel Angoun, a remote region, which takes a full day of commuting in a jeep or a truck, followed by two days on the mule back, from the closest French post. Lassalle’s mission is to map the area and to identify the most efficient route to build a trail for his company to reach the mine residing deeply in the rocky mountains.

An Old Town in Morocco

During the week spent roaming among the walnut trees, dried streams, rocky cliffs, mule paths, Lassalle encounters, dines with, and works with the local people, all but one speak a language he has no access to. The engineer’s only “translator,” a stranger who pops up on his way to Imlil and makes himself an indispensable component of the journey, conducts his translation in such a mysterious fashion that Lassalle fails to detect how much “truth” is retained in the translation. This uncertainty lingers throughout the novel, demonstrating itself through the futile communication between Lassalle and his guide Icchou, who more often than not ignores the master’s orders and leads the latter in directions as he pleases, through the looming danger posed by Idder, who presents himself in a menacing argument and emerges in Lassalle’s analysis and hallucination as a murder suspect, and through a returning trip, where the only shower in the whole week floods away an important piece of evidence for the death of another foreigner and erases much of the route charted by Lassalle on a map. By the end of the journey, little seems to have happened for sure, but a lot of what could have happened is inscribed in Lassalle’s memory, if memory can be trusted at all.

I joked that if I were to teach a course on engineers in novels, I would assign The Mise-en-Scène to ill-behaved students as a punishment. Indeed reading this novel was at times punishing, when I trudged through pages after pages describing the mule path, the dried puddles, the scathing sun, the arrangement of idle fields, with no plot, no sensible meaning. I, much like the engineer, was trapped in a futile roaming. The difficulty of reading was doubled by the ubiquitous presence of foreign words: “douar,” “assif,” “sheikh,” “djebel”…which the translator of this French novel intentionally left intact (how he resembled Lassalle’s translator!). There were moments when I felt my intellect and aesthetic taste were scorned by a malicious author. Not that I couldn’t decipher difficult text, but the text in front of me was not created for understanding.

My hard feelings, according to the novel’s English translator Dominic Di Bernardi, are the outcomes of a style choice to which the author of this novel was committed. The author Claude Ollier is a faithful student of the New Novel Movement, a movement that resisted the Flaubertian omnipotent realism, which places both the author and the readers at an all-knowing vantage point.

In an interview Ollier admitted his conscious choice to divert from the traditional narrative styles characterized by clear plot and “recognizable elements.” Ollier was also cognizant of the possible misgivings the reader might feel about his narrative experiment, who, “no longer ultimately finding the accustomed tonality or scale of each of these genres, felt in his own turn misused, mistreated, thrown off.” Yet Ollier believed that “writing is that which displaces, dislodges, dislocates, dismantles, and then realigns and recomposes differently.” Such was the aesthetic philosophy undergirding the puzzling text of The Mise-en-Scène. Given Ollier’s blunt confession of his “mistreatment” of the reader, it would be fair for a reader, if she is an engineer, to ask, “is it pointless trying to learn anything about engineers in such an idiosyncratic novel?” My answer is affirmative, unless one is ready to consider learning very differently from what one is used to in many engineering classrooms. If there is one thing to learn about novels, it’s the enormous flexibility a reader has interpreting what she reads. The amorphous text of The Mise-en-Scène makes this statement all the more powerful. Therefore, maybe the gift of this novel is an experience counterintuitive to engineering thinking, a parallel universe in which it’s OK not to have control for every parameter or to know every causal relationship. Instead of determination, this novel encourages doubting, for doubting is many times closer to the truth, or a true state of affairs.

The Stranger by Albert Camus. The estrangement needs not to happen in a foreign land or on an alien. Albert Camus’s classic novel explores the intricate psychological process that turns a French man a stranger to his own society, or that society strange to him.

I, for one, had my doubts upon finishing the novel. Although I could feel the ethical streams flowing underneath the text, I had had some difficulty articulating them until last Saturday, at a Moral Literacy Colloquium, where two presenters introduced German sociologist Georg Simmel’s concept of the “stranger.” According to the presentation, the “strangers” in Simmel’s conception are people who are simultaneously close and distant, not because their existence transcends space, but because the “strangers”–unfamiliar to people’s habitual realm of interaction–are banished by the latter from their minds. Such is the case for the Engineer Lassalle in the novel. When Lassalle goes to the villages in Imlil, he displaces the local people from their homes and makes them “strangers” in his mind. The tools that enable Lassalle’s “estrangement” of the locals include language (Lassalle speaks no Arabic, not to mention the local dialect) and ways of doing things (e.g., the locals’s indifference to efficiency). In the novel, the banishment is met with brutal resistance from the strangers, in the killing of a foreigner, but also in the sacrifice of a local woman, one of the strangers.

My last doubt has to do with the author’s own relation with the business of estrangement in his writing. Insofar as his writing reveals the estrangement of the local people by a foreign engineer who works for a mining company, Ollier provides a medium for examining the forces of Western technology and economy. However, the author should possibly examine a little harder of his portrait of the African region and the local people as inherently dangerous and the antithesis of his own society.

In my next post, I will review A Single Pebble by John Hersey, a novel that follows an American engineer to another “strange land”–the early 20th century China.