Short Story Review – Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud – The Guardicci Masterpiece

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

The Guardicci masterpiece is not a painting nor a book, nor a play, or sculpture, or poem, or song.  No, the masterpiece is two eyes, lifelike – more than lifelike, perhaps alive, living even.  And those eyes are embedded within a human mummy, a female, young, perhaps beautiful.

The narrator is thirty-five and lives alone.  He has become accustomed to the bachelor life, though he knows a woman, Delia, with whom he sometimes shares his bed.  He is a translator, which means he works from home, and his house is filled with books and manuscripts.  He has a quite life, not destitute but hardly rich, but he is content.

One day, on a whim, he finds himself inside a store which sells all manner of strange items and objects.  The strangest is a female human mummy.  He is drawn to the mummy first because of its uniqueness and the faint whiff of the illicit, but then because of the mummy’s eyes – the eyes created by Guardicci.

The mummy costs far beyond his means, but the translator buys it anyway.  He is drawn primarily to the beauty of the mummy’s eyes, but also to the inherent sadness of a young girl mummified for the sake of – what?  Art?  Science?  Commerce?

Late one night he is woken by the sound of a beautiful song.  He stumbles about his books in search of the source, to discover that the mummy is singing:

The singing didn’t stop when the mask fell away. Had she noticed a difference? Could she even do so? Nothing led me to believe she could. Her expression hadn’t changed, her gaze was fixed as ever, mysterious as I’d always known it to be. It was just that her thin lips were moving, rounding or flattening to form words that didn’t make any sense to me. What breath, from what oblivion, lent her life? But did I myself even know why I was here in this world? I hadn’t the slightest, but did my best to accept my condition. In her way, this creature shared that condition of being alive. None of the rest was any of my business.

Is she alive, then, or dead?  Dead, surely.  She has no organs, her body is bandaged, her heart no longer beats.  And yet each night she sings, the music wafting eerily through the translator’s small rooms, sometimes early at night and sometimes late, but always she sings.  And then, after a while, she starts to move.

She lived the way a lamp flickers. She was rather more like a battery, in fact, a depleted battery sporadically calling on its last reserves.

This first half of the story is devoted entirely to the growing awareness of the translator that the mummy he has bought is even more than she initially seems.  He never becomes attracted to her physically, but he is certainly enamoured with her as she slowly jerks into life.  We share the translator’s experience of discovering the secrets of the mummified girl as she sings, and then moves, and then interacts with the world once more.  The translator is curious, intelligent, and willing to wait and see what this new phase of his life will bring.

And then the narrator’s lover, Delia, enters the story, and the whole thing falls apart.

It’s really quite amazing how far this story falls, and how quickly.  Delia meets the mummy and a rivalry is formed, and then the story devolves into a series of almost slapstick situations as the mummy and the girlfriend battle it out for the affections of the translator.  He remains aloof from the battle, more concerned with trying to understand the mysteries of the mummy, but the two “girls” fight it out with all the cleverness of an American sitcom.  It’s an exceptionally bizarre change of tone, and one that does not sit well at all when compared with the rest of Châteaureynaud’s fiction.

Perhaps Châteaureynaud can’t do love well.  Or jealousy.  Or the interplay of a man and two women who desire him (one sexually, one – well, we aren’t sure in what way).  But what he can do well is extract the extraordinary from the ordinary, and keep a mystery alive.  It’s when he turns his attention away from these that his fiction becomes unsatisfying.  The Guardicci Masterpiece begins so well, with such a strong initial premise, that it’s all the more terrible when the whole thing falls into catastrophe.

Author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Title The Guardicci Masterpiece
Translator Edward Gauvin
Nationality French
Publisher Small Beer Press

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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