Friday, 26 September 2008

JACQUES CHESSEX'S VAMPIRE OF ROPRAZ

This is a slim jewel of a novel, based on the true story of a grave-defiling necrophiliac in the remote Jura mountains of Switzerland. It’s the turn of the last century and although this Ripper attacks corpses, not living women, his crimes send no less a shock through the community than Jack did through London just fifteen years earlier. Despite a similar level of hysteria, the local authorities get no closer to a suspect than London’s did looking for Jack. Not until two more graves have been violated, does a canton-wide alert for any sort of ‘perversion’ result in a stable-boy being caught having sex with animals in a barn, and he is tried and convicted of the crimes.

What makes this book so enthralling is the subtle way Chessex weaves elements of genre fiction into an examination of a backward and repressed society trying to cope with what we think of as modern criminal horror, but in fact seem almost a natural outgrowth of rural isolation, Calvinist repression, and intense social jealousy. The most obvious comparison is with The Crucible, where the same factors come into play. Chessex gets more latitude than Arthur Miller for two reasons. One is that his setting manages to combine a number of classic archetypes: he is near to vampire country both geographically and in the time-frame of the great Dracula story, and the grave-robbing recalls that other Swiss classic, Frankenstein. Turn of the century Switzerland also allows the new ’science’ of psychoanalysis to make its telling appearance.

But Miller also had a more direct allegory to pursue, in McCarthyism, while Chessex works on a more general point, drawing a distinct connection with our modern era, and its obsession with sexual frustration. Of course if you think of that frustration leading to violent hysteria, built on lies, you could apply it to any number of modern tragedies, from Iraq down to Columbine, but I think Chessex is working on a subtler canvas. Dr. Mahaim, the shrink who examines Fevez, the stable boy, blames society’s ‘primordeal squalor; for creating the conditions for ‘merciless horror’ but still one wonders. Fevez is convicted only after being released, when the psychiatrist has realised his perversions don’t include any active desires towards humans. He’s then re-arrested, and convicted, after he attacks a local woman who had flirted with him. His more proactive, as it were, approach to sex has been triggered by nocturnal visits from a mysterious ‘woman in white’ who has bribed his jailers. Chessex appears to be casting his net for society’s squalors just slightly wider than Dr. Mahaim.

Fevez was convicted, but escaped the asylum to which he was confined in 1915, went to France, and joined the Foreign Legion. He was killed in the trenches that same year, and turned out to have been one of the bodies buried in France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. So war turns the Swiss pervert into a French hero, and again, we’re forced to re-examine our ideas of society’s squalor.

Interestingly, while nominating the suspects in the case, before Fevez was arrested, Chessex mentions one who is a novelist, wrote ‘strange love letters’ to ladies in the region, and considers writing a greater ‘sacrifice than some young girl’s mortal remains’. It’s satisfyingly tempting to imagine Chessex pointing us in the right direction there. This is a novel worthy of the best of Durrenmatt, and that is high praise indeed.

The Vampire of Ropraz by Jacques Chessex
Bitter Lemon Press £6.99 ISBN 9781904738336

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