The Drunken Book


The exquisite core of Christophe Bataille’s slight novel documenting the grand, last days of absinthe, which was officially banned in France in 1915, is the mysterious and ritualized brewing of the emerald green liqueur. This takes place in the laboratory of José, a mysterious figure in the hills of Provence who seems part alchemist, part shaman. His elaborate and wizardly preparations are witnessed by the narrator, a young boy who first tries absinthe at the age of nine, at which point he “can no longer see objects except by the light of which they [are] an echo.”

Intoxication is not strong enough a term to describe the reveries and devotions that result. Absinthe invests the language of drunkenness with an innocently sweet clarity. There are no hangovers or headaches here. José’s laboratory is described as though he is a serious scientist, his distillery the breeding ground of an absolutely revered substance. The boy’s sole interest, even after his sister disappears, is to watch José shuffle among the apparatuses of his trade in the dark cellar: the flasks and carafes and powdery residues of the distillation process, the rare and forbidden golden absinthes, and the unexplained women who sometimes emerge from the shadows.

Earlier in the book, a man named Jean Mardet, facing poverty and famine in Provence, leaves his family and sets out to South America to earn a living. Once there, he falls into the absinthe trade and opens a bar, forgets his family, and is never heard from again. Much later, after Jean’s wife and child have given up hope and gone away, José appears in the hills and begins his magical distillery, supplying the town, including the narrator and his family, with soul-dilating reveries while the country around them prepares for war. Jean Mardet and José are mysteriously linked, though little effort is made to explore their connection and deepen the human side of this story.

Far more attention is given to the stages by which absinthe is brought to its consumable luminescence than to characters or narrative—yet a spare story does emerge, and the language of the book is aptly shadowy and brilliant at once. Absinthe is probably the only liqueur that is said to glow in the dark.

A famous lineage of devoted artists—among others, Manet, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Picasso, and Hemingway—have sought to record the numbingly delicious effects of the drink. Christophe Bataille enters their ranks, offering an elegant, though modest, contribution to the genre, a quietly reverent study of the demise of a lost potion.