Claude Pélieu was an associate of William Burroughs and his 1973 anti-novel Kali Yug Express is a continuation of the cut-up experiments begun more than a decade earlier by Brion Gysin. Although the book appeared in French (the language in which it was written) and German back in the 1970s., Kali Yug Express has only just been published in English. The English translation seems to have been made by Pélieu’s second wife Mary Beach many years ago. Pélieu and Beach also had a hand in the translation of many beat writers – including Burroughs – into French.
While Kali Yug Express takes some major cues from Burrough’s cut-up trilogy – The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express – in terms of its space age mythology, the more autobiographical elements of Kali Yug Express owe less to the book’s most obvious source of inspiration. However, it is worth noting that Pélieu – like Burroughs – had been a junkie. But Pélieu owes a great deal to French influences including surrealism and lettrism, despite his frequent allusions to Burroughs:
“Some youngsters are rolling cigarettes, and passers by smile indulgently, except for an avant-garde French poet, a guy who knows who isn’t taken in… he’s always afraid that some Hippie in civilian clothes will drop drugs in his lemonade… he’s an ex-Lettriste very much in favor…. one time his wife panicked and threw an ounce of hash in the garbage, to protect her dear little ones… One of the guests had mistaken a bar of Pakistani hash for chocolate, his sight was getting bad as of a long time ago. He ate the bar in secret, that fool!… two ounces in one day!…. expensive, hard to take!… in short, a half hour later the guy smiles for the first time in forty years, as high as a kite, wanting to hear some real rock, dancing with broads……” (page 67).
Elsewhere fragments of situationist sloganeering appear: “As soon as you take your desires for realities you start to invent. We catch all the signs drifting among reflections of waves whispering on the edges of clouds.” (page 95).
The novel returns to more familiar Burroughsian territory at its climax, an effect achieved through a speed up of the rate and rhythm of the cut-ups as the novel progresses (obviously there is no narrative): “We’re sitting on police glue. People were wandering through reality, absorbing death, wavering like cops evacuated by the pipeline of time, crossing that mosaic of spray-cameras, impaling themselves on jackhammers of worker-agents… risky messages in the light… to survive in a macrobiotic night, naked, dying in the taste of the world, flying over the scenery, crawling among technical lines – yes-yes superstar yes-yes leaning over the sink, vomiting the latest information.” (page 238).
Kali Yug Express is a curio of the seventies that riffs around surrealism and Burroughs (but reads more like Kathy Acker) and yet also manages to be an early and very French example of post-modern literature. This anti-novel probably works better in French than this English translation – since its sources are French and would be more apparent in that language (and I’m not just thinking of French language writers in the surrealist tradition and its slipstream, but also of the Beats in their early French translations). Nonetheless it is good to finally read an English edition of a book I’ve often heard about but until now have been unable to check out….
And just in case you don’t know, Pélieu was born in France in 1934, but from 1963 onwards he mostly lived in the United States where he died in 2002.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!