Lines on a Continent of Glass (work in progess)
Extract from Part 1

Cruising downriver, by now into our second glass, heady stuff in the afternoon, I was musing on the curious displacements involved in the anglicisation, presumably by those same English merchants, of the Portuguese word ‘porto’ (the wine)/’Porto’ (the city). In becoming respectively port and Oporto, the terminal ‘o’ had disappeared in the one only to reappear at the beginning of the other. It occurred to me too that if the name of the river had been similarly anglicised, it would have been rendered as the Dour or the Odouro. Perhaps both had been rejected as inappropriate for such an imposing river as the Douro. Meandering downstream, I seemed to recall that the Douro got a mention in John Ashbury’s Into The Dusk-Charged Air, a hypnotic poem over several pages consisting entirely of assertions about rivers. Later, on my return home, I found I’d misremembered: the Douro didn’t figure there. Instead, like distorted echoes of historical possibilities never actualized, I found the Adour, ‘silent, motionless’, and the Oder, ‘very deep, / Almost as deep as the Congo is wide’.
There is a curious parallel to this displaced ‘o’, on a grand scale, with Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a novel famous for having been written without the letter ‘e’. If in a way the work is haunted by the absence of the most common French (and English) vowel, as Perec himself in the days before word processing software was reputed to have been haunted by the possibility that the odd ‘e’ might have eluded his preclusion, the reader soon adjusts to and even develops a taste for the constraint. However, just as pyschoanalysis teaches us that the repressed always returns, the missing ‘e’ comes back with a vengeance in Perec’s later novella Les Revenentes, in which no other vowels occur at all. There, unlike La Disparition where the foundational rule is never made explicit, the reader is in on the game throughout, invited to accept unconventional spellings of words that become freer as the text progresses, a trangression of rules that chimes with its trangressive content, which concerns a jewel theft during an orgy in the precincts of Exeter cathedral. Both works have, rather amazingly in view of their fidelity to their respective lipograms, been translated into English, the one by Gilbert Adair as A Void, the other by Ian Monk as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets & Sex.
But darker concerns lurk at the periphery of Perec’s linguistic levity. For as Harry Matthews and Alistair Brotchie point out in their Oulipo Compendium, – a study of the experimental literary group of which Perec was a leading member until his untimely death in 1982 – ‘e’ in French is homophonic with ‘eux’ (them). They suggest that for Perec the ‘them’ represented by ‘e’ may have been his parents, Polish Jews who had emigrated to France (where Perec was born in 1936) and who disappeared during his childhood: his father was killed in 1940 while serving in the French army; his mother was deported two years later and died in Auschwitz. On this reading, La Disparition was a way of confronting an absence he was unable to approach more directly.