Eric Liberge’s graphic novel On the Odd Hours is one of the strangest yet most haunting novels I have been privileged to read.
The story is of Bastien, a young man down on his luck and deaf, who finds himself apprenticed to Fu Zhi, a man with the same hearing disability, who serves as a guard the night shift at the Louvre, the largest museum of pre-20th century art in the world. But Fu Zhi is no normal guard, and his work is done “on the odd hours” a time of night when the works of art come alive and stalk the hallways. It is Fu Zhi (an now Bastien’s) job to beat drums and make noise which forces the Winged Victory or the silver statute of Henri IV as a child to return to its rightful place. But Bastien has ever been the rebel, and it is this which proves either his downfall or salvation (a matter left open to interpretation at the end of the novel).
Liberge worked in cooperation with the Louvre in creating this novel, and the museum placed it seal of approval on the front cover. Liberge was able to walk the halls when no other guests were present, and that emptiness of the halls and the plays of light and shadow are reflected in the art panels. Most of the story is rendered darkly, with only small glows of light a soft orange to alleviate the blacks, grays and shadowed whites. The effect is to create a sense of the ethereal, the surreal even, which the text only back up. Liberge was also careful to depict all of the art on display (or that comes alive) with faithful detail. So when the Winged Victory comes to life, she does not gain her missing head or arms, but simply breaks free from the ocean, finally able to take flight.
It is this which Liberge celebrates in the novel. He wants readers to understand that art caged is harder to experience than art set free. Much of the text deals with trying to get readers to understand that art is as much experience as it is anything, and that dry, stuffy tomes of “art appreciation” tend to take away from the true experience of art. Art is alive in Liberge’s story, and while this is metaphorical to us, in On the Odd Hours this is reality.
Liberge’s choice of a deaf protagonist is unusual. In the supplemental material at the end of the novel, we learn that the Louvre was one of the first museums to employ the dead as guides, and a close look also shows the Liberge is related to one of these guides, and so has secondhand knowledge of the deaf experience. Liberge uses sign language throughout the novel and though music appears in the novel, it is of a type experienced best by those with limited or no hearing. For readers who hear, it adds to the oddity of the novel, but at the same time helps the reader to understand the difficulties and challenges those without hearing experience. However, the story is not about Bastien’s deafness by any stretch, it only helps the narrative to be that much more fascinating in its complexity even as it is sparse on words.
Because the story is a translation from French, English speakers may have a hard time understanding some of the dialogue, things which might be idiomatic in the French but translate awkwardly into English. However, there is no denying the ethereal, odd, yet celebratory nature of In the Odd Hours. Having experienced parts of the Louvre several times, I found that Liberge made me want to revisit, to more carefully look at the art and sculpture of the works collected and to experience the art in a brand new way.