Claude Farrère is an author who has fallen into oblivion, forgotten, ignored, and his books left to gather dust in old musty libraries, the relic of a bygone and forgotten age. Perhaps this is a humbling message for all of us, for in his heyday, the French naval officer, literary figure, author, and ultimate member of the prestigious Académie française, whose book La Bataille garnered more than a million copies sold and whose book Les Civilisés, the topic of this article, won one of the most celebrated prizes of French literature - the Goncourt prize. Perhaps it is because Farrère doesn't neatly fit into our categories: he was an extreme far right nationalist, an ardent defender of Pétain, and yet who also admired and appreciated non-European civilizations such as Japan and Turkey, and welcomed with open arms the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Farrère represents a sort of old guard, traditionalist, French conservative whose views are difficult for us to truly understand nowadays, and Les Civilisés is a brilliant example of this: its moralistic look at colonialism's negative impact on the colonizer sounds like Memmi's The Colonizer and the Colonized, half a century avant la lettre, but it stems from older, conservative depictions of the degeneration and decline of France caused by its colonies rather than modern anti-colonial sentiment. What is certainly true regardless of the historical element of Farrère's most prestigious book, is that it carries a timeless and beautifully described story, and one which has seemingly never been translated into English.
I am certainly no equivalent of an author like Farrère, and the idea of translation simply being a rote and simple task, without the need for one's own literary talent, is an erroneous one. But I hope that I can show a translation of Les Civilisés, or as I have rendered it in English, The Civilized, which presents the fascinating story and portrait of Farrères great work, showing its brilliance in English to the wider audience it so justly merits. This project translates the book chapter by chapter, with an English translation above, and a link to the French original below, as well as a list of links to each chapter at the bottom.
In a courtyard lined with tall shady flamboyants*, two Tonkinese rickhsaw pullers hauled a very elegant rickshaw, lacquered and silver-embossed between the house and its megal gate. They hurriedly hitched themselves between the poles, and then they waited for the master, impassive like silk-dressed golden idols. The rickshaw and the pullers were a charming team, picturesque even in Saigon, where only the less well off people still used them. But doctor Raymond Mévil was an innovative man, and he also had a Victoria** and two handsome horses. The world could forgive him for his fancy of going around in a rickshaw, against the laws of fashion - and doing the offending in luxury all the while.
It was 4 o'clock, when one began to rouse from the siesta. The doctor didn't receive patients later - it was a private matter, in a country where the streets were deserted until the sun went down. That day, Raymond Mévil was going out early, not for his normal before-dinner walk, but for a few semi-official visits. This was something that he liked to spread out a bit, preferring to only be seen rarely.
A young woman, with her hair up in a silky bun, opened the door, threw a couple piercing taunts at the rickshaw pullers, and grew still suddenly, coyly: the master had appeared. He strolled down the doorstep, his gait fresh even if he was already started to straggle, and his hand caressed his mistress's breast through the silken black dress, and got into the little vehicle which set off at full tilt, the Tonkinese running as fast as their legs could take them so that the wind from the trip would cool the European man's face. From windows as they passed by, through the slots of the shutters closed to block out the sun, women's regards admired the beauty of the white livery bordered with purple, admiring the gracefulness of the man, even more seductive than the luxury surrounding him. Doctor Mévil was well liked by women - in the first place because he liked them too, and because he only liked them, and secondly because he was handsome in a way which stuck with women, a sensual and soft beauty, almost indecent. He was white and blond, with large deep blue eyes, and a fine, red mouth. Although he was already thirty years old, he still had a boyishness about him, and even though he was strong, you couldn't help but think of him as delicate. His long blond moustache made him look like a decadent Gaul, the centuries having served to soften and refine him.
It was a coincidental resemblance: Mévil thought of himself as sufficiently civilized for every blood to have been mixed together in his veins equally.
The rickshaw rolled between the trees lining the street, in the shade of the slanting rays of the sun, still a burning blow even at this hour. With the tip of his cane, the master guided the pullers. To stop them, he called "you!" and struck one on the shoulder. They entered into a garden in front of a villa. All along the metal fence, carriages were waiting, with Annamite grooms, childlike in their height, hanging onto the horses' bits.
"Huh", said Mévil, "it's the day of the dear little woman, I didn't realize."
He paused, then squared his shoulders, and searched inside his pocket for his wallet and checked the contents - a few bills of the Banque Indo-Chinoise. Then, after throwing his cane to one of of the accompanying boys who had run in front of him, he went inside the building.
The house, old and huge, was colonial to a fault. Two antechambers led to the salon, relegated to the most sombre wing, extended by a closed veranda with a dark awning. All of it was big enough to get lost in, and as tall as a church: the walls didn't go all the way to the top, and the warm air circulated under the rafters. Down below, it was cool, and the furniture, everything in ebony incrusted with mother-of-pearl, breathed the scent of the colonies.
In the coatroom, Raymond Mévil ran into someone going out - a heavy set and serious man, his skin infused with a lemon color, with heavy set motions - the master of the house. Ariette, trial lawyer. The two men shook hands friendlily, the gloomy face of the lawyer perking up enough for a welcome smile, more than the honor most of his visitors received.
"My wife is here, my dear friend," he said, "and it is very kind of you to have come to see her. It has been a long time since I have had the pleasure of receiving you in my home."
"Believe me, my dear friend, replied Mévil, "that the only thing to blame is my own laziness, and that to see you is always the greatest pleasure of mine in Saigon."
The lawyer looked charmed, and seemed relieved of worry.
"I'll leave you then, my dear doctor. You know that the palais de justice is calling me, like always..."
"For good reasons?"
"Divorces, naturally. We live in such a scandalous age...."
He left, the handkerchief pressed underneath his arm, his pace regular, automatic, his air businesslike and reserved. Raymond Mévil smiled at his back as he went away, his smile holding a grimace.
In the salon, 8 or 10 women were prattling away, elegant and carefree in their Saignonnaise dresses, which looked just like luxurious bath robes. Mévil, on the threshold of the room, cast his eye over all of them, and then started around the circle suavely to first greet the hostess, a charming brunette with chaste eyes, who held out her hand for him to kiss.
"Voilà the professor," she murmured. "What good fortune brings you here?"
"The professor," he replied, "has simply come to show his devotion to the Bar."
He bent down before each of the women, with gallant and suggestive words, and then he seated himself. He was the center of regards from the battery of pretty eyes, and the women were charmed by the handsome doctor, cementing his reputation again as Don Juan.
Lighthearted, he carefreely set to chatting. He was a witty man, and he knew how to present himself to please women. Frivolous by nature, he had studied how to seem even more so than he was, and he made us of this frivolity as a weapon in his romantic liaisons: women were grateful for him for this lightheartedness and charm, and they confided in him easily, without fear of their own self-image.
"You know," interjected suddenly Mrs. Ariette, "I was going to go see you, doctor."
"You're suffering from something?"
"No, but I'm always too hot. What a chilly December, heh? But still we can't go to the countryside, the crime season out there's at full peak. So you have to find a way to help me out, any way you can."
It's child play to do that."
"Your pills, isn't that so? I don't have a prescription anymore."
He rose, and took out his wallet.
"I'll make you one;"
"How do you do that doctor, do you control the thermometer? laughed another woman.
He had leaned against a pedestal table tucked away in a corner, while he scrawled out the prescription. When he had finished, he left the card behind and came back.
"There you go. You'll have enough for fourteen days - fourteen days for you to believe you're at the North Pole every time it takes your fancy."
Oh doctor, give the recipe, please, for the love of god!" cried another young woman.
"The love of god alone isn't enough," retorted Raymond jauntily. "But come to my practice, young madame, and we'll find a way to make do somehow..."
He hadn't reseated himself, and he left, leaving once again a smile for all of the fairer sex.
A minute after, one of them curiously went to look at the prescription left on the pedestal table.
"Ah, Mr. Mévil forgot his wallet!" she cried.
"Mr. Mévil always forgets something," said Mrs. Ariette with a serene smile.
Raymond Mévil was smiling as well, as he mounted back into the rickshaw. The pullers looked at him, and he called "Captain Malais," and kicked back into the leather cushions. The rickshaw started off again smartly.
Captain Malais lived on the corner of Boulevard Norodom and Mac-Mahon Street - across from the governor's palace - in the most luxurious house in all of Saigon. He was banker, and the word "captain," in Annamite slang, meant gentleman, and had lost all trace of its warlike function. A very important banker one might add, with his millions and the business that he did with it. The director of three banks, member of every administrative council, and tax farmer for a bushel of government levies, he was a who's-who that everyone was aware of. Furthermore, he was a man who had made his way the American style - not born into his position, but a self-made man - and the husband of a beautiful woman, from France and not another colonial wife.
Mévil rather fancied her, and was always looking for a way to be more intimate.
Mrs. Malais was reading on her veranda, her husband by her side. It was modeled in the style of a boudoir from the age of Louis XIV, exquisite, all blue, with balustrades in pearly white marble, intricately worked and carved. And what a beautiful woman to match! The elegant beauty of a young woman, a beauty of a marquise, adorably blonde, thoughtful, resplendent in this setting made just for her.
A European footman - another rare luxury in Saigon - presented Mévil's card.
"You called for the doctor?" asked the banker.
Mrs. Malais put down her book and shook her head.
"Then," said the husband, "he came to woo you. Let him, my dear, but don't accept his drugs.."
She blushed deeply. Her alabaster pale skin, almost transparent, grew purple with even the slightest emotions.
"Henri, how could you think such a thing!"
He kissed her head lovingly.
"I think... that you're a lovely young woman... and I'll leave you to your own devices. The taxes are calling me. Stay with your doctor, and see him off if he bores you. After all, it isn't his fault, the poor fellow, if he has a mistaken address. A woman like you at Saigon, my dear, it's truly such a paradox!"
He crossed paths with Mévil in the stairway.
"Doctor, good evening," he said with his normal curt voice, so different from the tender caresses that he had given to his wife. "Go up, they're waiting for you up there. Only, no pranks, heh? I do. Not. Want. A single pill of your damn cocaine to come into my home, you understand?"
Mévil waved his hand in protest.
"Good, it's agreed then announced Mr. Malais. Not a milligramme! My wife isn't unhinged yet, and if it pleases you, I'd like to have her stay like she is! Goodbye. Good to have seen you."
He left with firm footsteps, which echoed imperiously on the marble steps, and he didn't look back.
*A type of tree
** A type of carriage.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on May 04, 2021:
Good work. Keep on writing. We are folowing your work.
Iqra from East County & Cooking and Baking Expert on May 04, 2021:
Great and informative article. Good job
Peace and Blessings
Thanks for sharing Ryanc