A historical story is both a story and a history. Sometimes they are better stories than histories, and sometimes they are better histories than stories. Sometimes they do both well, and this is where Les Civilisés, 1905 book by French writer Claud Ferrère, a disciple of Pierre Loti, and like him a naval writer who wrote book after book about the peoples of the world who were exotic to France, shines. The winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in France, it is both a fascinating cast of characters, centered on Jacques-Gaston de Civadière, comte de Fierce, as well as the engineer Torral and doctor Mévil, and a look into an ironic, jaundiced view of French Indochina and the sordid colonial society of French Indochina, one of debauchery, exploitation, and sin. Its wit, its dry charm, its cutting depiction of colonial life in Saigon makes it for a book which brutally strips away many of the myths of colonial life and shows the seedy side of French domination in Indochina.
Decadence, sloth, depravity, greed, lust: these are the near-universal traits assigned to the French colonists of Indochina, passing their days in parties, orgies, making money (regardless of the cost to the native population), with mistresses, attended on by servants, the refuse of those who couldn't make it in France so went overseas instead. It is those who embrace this, who adopt the motto of the most reward for the least effort: these are the ones who triumph, the ones who are "the civilized." Civilization - detachment from simple virtues, from religion, from custom, from tradition, concern for one's own material, personal pleasures, a sense of irony and scorn which animates oneself, forging a being without innocence, without guilt, without shame. Fierce is the perfect example of this in the book, with his legions of mistresses, a sailor without any attachment to the land, who delights in pleasures and a calculated whimsicalness. Him and his companions have their biting irony, their casual, not-quite-friendship, their profiting from a conquered country, without concern for family, marriage, children, even to some extent duty - for while Fierce is a naval officer, and even liked by his admiral, he seems little motivated by patriotic elan.
Les Civilisés is a story about what it means to no longer be this odd "civilized," man, to find real love, innocence, and beauty - and yet at the same time the constant call of the sordid world that drags at Fierce, which sinks to bring him back down to its level. In a sense, this is a tale which is as old as tales themselves: the worldly and debauched, converted back to purity by an innocence and virtuous woman, and yet constantly forced to confront their old nature. It becomes less trite and matures on the basis of the witheringly ironic and cutting description of the world of French Indochina and the portrait of the characters that populate it. The author's style matches it perfectly, writing with its detached hand, before drawing itself closer and closer to its cry against the fall of Fierce: it is much more comprehensible and understandable than many of the French novels from the era too I feel.
This is where the book shines the most: its fascinating usage as a historic portrait of French Indochina. Les Civilisés is not necessarily annti-colonial: it critiques, in an age-old line of thought in France on France's colonial empire, the immortality and the degeneracy of the colonial population. In this, it is easy to confuse the anti-colonialism of the European traditional right, concerned about the moral impact of colonialism upon European society, isolationist, and wishing to preserve rather than to see "evolve" the traditional societies of the rest of the world, just as it wished to defend traditional society at home, and the later anti-colonialism of the left and progressives, condemning colonialism as a structure. Farrère himself was a great fan of Turkey and Japan, and would have lamented the ways in which their traditional culture and civilization was being destroyed by European modernization: it is subversive against European colonialism, but not necessarily anti-colonial per se, but definitively against a certain version of it, due to the moral decline that it instills in the French. In fact, it broadly critiques the moral development of French society as a whole, with the modern marriage of the parents of Fierce - who as a young boy could hear the squeaking of a chair of his mother having sex with her liaisons - and discusses multiple scenes of debauchery back in the metropole. Modernity as a whole seems to be for Farrère responsible for the moral decline of society, but it is given a wider field by the opportunities and nature of colonial life.
Its scenes of Saigonese life, with its legions of downtrodden Vietnamese servants who wait hand and foot on European settlers, the rhymes of life with the siestas, the fêtes, the preeminence of Europeans in administrative, military, and engineering roles while Chinese merchants developed their networks in the colony economically, the scenes of the city and the countryside, the ethnic neighborhoods, the opium dens and the prostitutes: it shows French Indochina's capitol at its worst. That it is not an anti-colonial book, written for the purpose of Indochinese independence or to villainize the French, makes it all the more interesting, since it is not a critique of French colonial control: it is a sardonic critique of French colonial society. In fact, this is one of the most remarkable features of the book: the complete absence of any of the voices of the colonized, who despite making up the vast majority of the colony's population, are completely absent in regards to characters, speaking roles, simple inclusion beyond prostitutes, carriage drivers, and servant boys.
It also shows a growing concern about the overcivilized of the era, of the loss of traditional virtues and traditional life. Here is a key element of Les Civilisés - the fin de siècle notion that society had become too industrialized, too modern, too rapid, too fast paced, that society was degenerating. Thus religion appears as a backstop to the social order, so that the genuinely moral and good figure of Mademoiselle Sélysette is made so by religion. War is a great cleansing flame for the civilized, so that either they perish as deserters, as happens for Torral deserts his post, or in battle, seeking to expunge their sins. In this; the Asians receive their accolades as being themselves the ones with ancient laws and customs that make them the civilized ones, unlike the Europeans.
If you read French, I highly recommend Les Civilisés, for its stark and uncompromising look at the lives of three debauched men, the degeneration and moral turpitude of French Indochina, the story of love and betrayal, and ultimately the pounding excitement of death at sea and redemption.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas