REVIEW: Universal Bureau of Copyrights

Universal Bureau of Copyrights
Bertrand Laverdure, trans. Oana Avasilichioaei
BookThug (2014)
Read by Klara du Plessis

The elegant English translation of Bertrand Laverdure’s novel, Universal Bureau of Copyrights (Oana Avasilichioaei, 2014), pivots on the contradictory premise that when imagination becomes reality and wild thoughts materialize, free will is lost rather than celebrated.

In an alternate world, “every word, every material, every object, every letter, every spark of life, every idea, every character, has their copyright” (103), implying that “you have no ownership over what constitutes you” (105). You imagine something and it happens to you; a stranger imagines something and it happens to you. As the term “Copyright” suggests, both in the original and the translation, the legal authority for one party to reproduce is simultaneously the prohibition for another party to do the same. Creativity is institutionalized to be a safe place, yet reveals itself as a house of horrors.

In the novel’s metafictional reality, the unnamed protagonist is subjected to imagination. In a picaresque sequence of events, he is systematically maimed, losing a leg, first his little fingers, then both his arms; his clothes disappear and, in a gesture of lost self-worth, he considers wearing a random sweater drenched in vomit. Metamorphosing through subtraction, loss of physicality becomes symbolic of his establishment as a character rather than as an independent human being. He is passively written, rather than writing himself. Being written means submitting to the whim of the writer, to imagination, to a future already copyrighted for him. He does not necessarily benefit from the writing, victimized by haphazard brutality: “I’m sure the main character’s stump should have grown back […] but you can bet your ass there’s some negligence in the writing of this scene” (45).

Injury is consistently positioned as the concluding act of a chapter. If violence is the final thought in a world where imagination reigns and the character is conscious of the fact that he is being created by the writer, then Laverdure is passing harsh judgment on the creative process. In a peek “behind the scenes of the book” (64), imagination is posited as disease.

Metafiction exposes the author’s craft and attempts to destabilize the power dynamic in favour of writer over written. Comically, a character costumed as Jokey Smurf recurs throughout as prankster and terrorist, sadistically offering an explosive gift box to unwitting targets. His character simultaneously stands for free will and fate, spontaneity and premeditation, independent individual and author’s pawn. Considering the Smurf costume, the protagonist asks: “Who takes the time to don the garb of Jokey Smurf? On the contrary, one would have thought Smurfs to be empty entities, remotely operated and inflated by a deus ex machina author” (64). And in the world of Universal Bureau of Copyrights he is correct. Jokey isn’t a one-dimensional addition to the novel. Rather, by wearing a costume, a character submits to playing a part in the narrative Laverdure creates while Laverdure questions the possibility of equality between author and character.

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