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The Civilized, Chapter 11 - English Translation of Les Civilisés

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Fierce signed the report that he was filling out and put it in its folder. Then he opened a box he had and looked at the Japanese prints within. It had been six hours now, and he was done with the day's work.

The prints were delightfully obscene. They were the only sort that Fierce collected, and he enjoyed being able to honor artists like them who weren't prey to false notions of prudeness. Hokousai and Outamaro were treasures to him.

He leafed through them, watching the scenes change. Among blossoming cherry trees, beneath eggshell blue skies, with young Japanese women making innocent love with samurais decked out in their armor for war. There were only a few flashes of nudity, but they were completely explicit when you found them. Fierce talked to himself as his fingers browsed the pages.

"Such a fascinating art! They put such effort into precision, and yet there's such a rush of sensuality! There's no irony, no parody, no sneers, it's genuine, real. Men and women are there natural as can be, putting all of their heart and all of their muscles into their love..."

He used his fingernail to trace the biceps and calves, the dresses and kimonos, too tight, coming undone in the passion of the embrace. A woman's head captured his eyes. The print was a modern one, and the artist had chosen something other than imitating the beauty of classical Japanese ladies with their cold and hauty air, or to go for a girlish sweet face of a young Japanese girl. Instead, he had looked to the West for his inspiration. Fierce smiled: the hazel eyes, the high nose which curled upwards at the end, they reminded him pleasantly of Sylva's face.

"But this woman isn't quite as pretty. Of course, I have to admit I haven't seen quite as much of young Sélysette as I have of this girl's body..."

The heroine of the stamp was outspread, her skirt hitched up, in the middle of a meadow blooming with wildflowers, while a lustful boy was approaching her. The boy was drawn with too much detail for Fierce's taste and he turned the page.

"Yes," he said again, "this style isn't like Chinese pornography at all. Like..."

He took an album of Chinese prints, bound in old silk.

"See! That girl on all fours, waiting for some old lecher to come take her - that's something that a Japanese artist would never do. The painting brims with too much irony to start with, and for a sensual engraving like this, he would never put that mocking grimace on her face that belies her partner's pleasure..."

He dove back in, looking for the famous Hokusai's Dream.

"He's create something like this, this fantastical union of beings without faces, he would give ten sexes to each of them, so that there'd be sixty couplings instead of ten."

Admiring it, he soaked up every detail of the incredible print at length. Then he rose and dressed himself to go out.

As he was taking off his uniform's vest and putting on a white tuxedo, he paused to glance again at the Japanese print that looked just like Sélysette Sylva, and he felt a quiet joy to use his man to block the sight of her lover with his hand, and to cover up the girl's rumbled clothes and body, and to just have the impish face smiling back at him. Taking back his hand he finished putting on the tuxedo and donned a straw hat - with the sun going down, he didn't need a full helmet.

"In fact," he suddenly cried out loud, "this grey chamber really is wretched! I've been off ever since this morning. It's time to go live a bit."

He left.

On the quay, he paused as he considered his options. The day had been gloomy. The meaningless of his pleasures and his life had haunted him all throughout without cease, and the image of the young woman he had just met two days before, Sélysette Sylva, kept on flashing before his eyes, always with her glowing happy smiles. It was a bit frustrating however pretty the sight was: Fierce wanted it go away now, to find get back to his old self, to throw himself headlong into all of the delights of this world that was like something out of a Thousand and One Nights, something that wise maidens like her could never experience, couldn't even know about.

But as he was about to set off, it all felt so... pointless.

Partying when you didn't want to isn't very fun. Fierce decided that the time where he might go see Liseron, his mistress, had already passed. Mévil might come, and Liseron hated being caught in the act. And it was too late as well to go try to find a pleasant companion among the native women or the métisses of Tan-Dinh or Hoc-Môn before dinner - all of the lovely Asians were out in the Inspection's carriages. The riverside was deserted. Fierce felt like he was absolutely alone in the world, impossible to even find another lone person to break his solitude. He stopped an empty carriage that was passing by, and told the driver to make for the club.

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It was when Fierce was bored that he would go to the club. There wasn't that much that he found pleasant about the colony's society - too much of it was just as dismal as the governor general had said. A lot of the club members were a dubious lot, accepted because there weren't any other options, and they knew that there weren't any choices but them and so they were either arrogant or indifferent. They were important men or at least they tried to appear like it, boastful, arrogant, willing on any occasion to show of their honor and even their honesty. It was a comic mixture of traits. But Fierce was jaded, bored, and didn't mind dipping his toes in from time to time.

True, there were a few people who stood out from the masses. Doctor Mévil put in an appearance from time to time at the circle, when some new intrigue meant that he was forced to dine with a husband. And Torral haunted the gambling hall, since he found the largest group of Saigonese assembled there and could look down on all of them at once the easiest. There were some other rare jewels too, be they civilized or barbarian men. Rochet the journalist, Malais the banker, Ariette the lawyer - the lot of them, among this crowd of mediocre swindlers, reigning over them as a proud elite of pirates. A select group who had been able to a greater or lesser degree get rich by better means than just by pure swindling, who had the constitution and skill to earn their money legally, even if at other people's expense. It was a group that Fierce liked much more, and, as his carriage bounced towards the club, he hoped to find one of them there.

Fortune smiled on him that day. In the newspaper room, Malais was reading the evening news. Fierce only saw a mess of unfolded papers at first, but when his footsteps echoed off the walls, the papers folded and the banker appeared, already standing. Malais had been a soldier, a sailor, a typographer, a trader, and a colonist in turn, and he still had a dynamic energy from all of his careers that reflected in his his deliberate and energetic movements and his quick and collected language.

"Is Mrs. Malais doing well?" asked Fierce. He had run into the young woman two times at the theater but hadn't tried to seduce her, even if he thought that she was a lovely specimen.

"My wife is going well, and isn't using cocaine," said the banker with a laugh.

Fierce raised his eyebrows.

"That's true, you didn't know. Your friend Mévil wanted to put her on his favorite regime. He's such a clever old boy, drugs most woman around here, a good pretext to get into their good graces. Thanks to his pills imported from somewhehre, he immunizes them from the heat - not without a few nervous ticks perhaps, you understand, but we're used to that here in Saigon. And since he's taken a fancy to my wife, our good Mévil's tried to bring in cocaine to help out. I've put him straight, although I haven't got anything against him for the good effort, believe me."

Fierce smiled.

"You're going to have dinner here?" asked the banker.

"Yes, I think so."

"Me as well. Do me the honor of sharing my table. I've worked hard today and I deserve the reward of some pleasant company like you."

They sat down together in the press room. Malais kicked away the newspapers that were scattered about around him.

"Idiots, these rags! Can you believe how many columns they'll devote to the latest visit the governor paid to whatever hospital, but that they don't write a word about the English situation? They're all worthless!"

His eyes swiveled suddenly at Fierce questingly.

"But you're the aide de camp, and so you have to know something about it, right?"

"Not in the slightest," said Fierce sincerely. "You're talking about the diplomatic tensions? I believe that it isn't so serious, but I don't have any personal information to share. In any case the cables are English, and so if by some impossible event a war did break out, we'd learn about it when the English squadron charged with destroying us arrived on our doorsteps."

"What a pleasant situation you have," sighed the banker. He thought a minute then shrugged.

"In any case, what does it matter? I don't have anything to gain from it, and nothing to lose either."

"Even if war does break out?"

"Good lord, I'm a banker, administrator, and tax farmer. All of this country's business is in my hands - whatever could the war do to me? Governments can come and go, but each of them will need me."

When the hour came, they dined together. Malais only drank a dry champagne specially imported from America, which Fierce approved of. In his current state of melancholy, wine seemed like a useful antidote - a treatment to be completed by a few opium pipes later to bring him back to his normal optimism. He got tipsy from it.

The serving boys came to wait on them. Malais had had them fetch his champagne for the terrasse. While they waited they kept smoking Turkish cigarettes and drinking. Fierce admired the blue smoke which hazily rose to catch the light of the electric lights, like whirling crowds of clouds thrown up by the ride of valkyries.

"Do you enjoy dreaming?" said Malais.

"You don't.

"I don't. I don't like like bastard things. Dreaming isn't work and yet it also isn't relaxation."

"You're a man of action." Fierce smiled, and there was a twinge of disdain in his smile. But Malais didn't seem to notice.

"You must be too! A sailor after all..."

"No," said Fierce, still smiling. "I might have the uniform, but I don't have the spirit. I'm more like your friend Raymond Mévil than you think."

"Too bad," said Malais simply.

But he stayedfriendly enough. He liked Fierce as he was.

"You're better than your friend. You're more intelligent him to start."

"How do you know that?"

"I just do."

He stamped out his cigarette, grimacing unhappily at the blond tobacco - or maybe for something else that had crossed his mind - and chose a Manilla cigarette. After he had lit it he continued.

"Raymond Mévil lives for women and they're all that matter to him: I hold that against him, it's both degreding for him and it's foolish."

Fierce didn't try to protest. Curiously, he asked "In fact, you seem to know quite a lot about Raymond's adventures, don't you?"

Malais laughed.

"You know just as much as me! From what I know you have at least one shared mistress."

Malais rit.

"Pshah," said Fierce without denying it, "that hardly counts. I wanted to ask about the other ones, the ones that aren't paid for, at least officially."

"Heh! Those ones don't count for much either. You want to know their names, but those are Polichinelle's secrets. Pretty miss Liseron will be able to tell you more than me, and the anecedotes she has to tell are probably a bit more spicy.."

Fierce shrugged his shoulders and raised his glass to his lips.

"I prefer this here," he said, lifting up the glass," to talking about women."

"You're right, it's both less dangerous and less idiotic."

Fierce drank.

"It's not idiotic at all," he said as he refilled his empty glass. "There are different minds and men aren't all alike. I like this," he said as he thumped the bottle with his finger, a hollow ping echoing out - "and this" - he blew out a puff of smoke from his cigarette - "and that's my joy. Mevil prefers brunettes or dirty blondes, with green or blue eyes, with pink or brown breasts - that's his taste. You, my dear, you're happy to have your taxes to collect, banks to manage, loans to make, that's your joy. They're all fine. None are stupid."

"Agreed. But even still, Mr. Fierce, remember this - sooner or later, Turkish tobacco will become bland to you and wine tasteless, sooner or later, you'll see Mévil weary of his harem of rainbow women, probably to go off to some psychological hospital, and myself I'll never - you hear what I say, never! - stop finding my life of struggles and battles fulfilling and enjoyable, delighting in movement and action, because it's in harmony with what's good and healthy in a man, his fighting spirit. The drive to survive, to persevere, to overcome! Heh, if I keep talking like this you're going to make a philosopher out of me!"

He laughed and rose. A warm light spilled out from a tall glass door of the gaming hall onto the terrasse, the piles of piastres glinting and the glow of lights filling the night like fireflies.

"Mr. Fierce," said Malais suddenly, "I want to invite you to come be a part of my life this evening. Come with me to the gaming hall, and we'll play. Seriously I add, not just to while away an evening, but to try to win a fortune! Whatever happens, I promise you that you'll feel alive and you'll have real joy, unmixed with any second thoughts! Come."

Fierce threw back the last bottle: it was already empty. He rose and followed Malais without saying a word - he still had that melancholy air of silence that had gripped him all day.

Seven, eight, nine poker tables, and one for baccarat too - in all, there were ten green fields laid out under the splendor of the electric lights. Despite the fans spinning in all four corners, despite the bankas swishing above, despite the night air which spilled in from the windows left wide open, it was hotter than an oven inside. Hair slick with sweat clung to your head, your clothes grew damp and stuck to you, the just the necessary movement of pushing and raking in the tokens made faces run with sweat and contort with suffering.

Malais crossed the hall. His vigorous stride clashed with the torpid heat of the place. At the last table, a player rose to greet them and Fierce was stunned to recognize Torral. The engineer only played rarely, and his only wish was to see his favorite theories on probability calculations played out by his cards in hands. Doubtless he had already finished his mathematical solutions, because he didn't deign to sit down again. His partners were Ariette, Abel, and a German named Schmidt, who owned an empire of flour mills. The lieutenant governor, with his soft voice, said hello to the newcomers, and the lawer, still with his pasty yellow tint to his skin, put a welcoming smile on his baby face.

"Mr. Fierce is going to play, and I'll put in for half of his game," declared Malais. "Gentlemen, we'll ready the cards, you've been warned."

"Then I suppose I'll stay to watch," said Torral bemusedly.

He sat down next to the banker, behind Fierce. Fierce, silently, shuffled the cards and played them out.

Around them, on the green tables and with the choir of the rasp of bank notes and the clink of piastres. Piastres made more noise and took up more space than the smaller, more modest golden coins of Europe would have: they were a perfect sign of the great richness of the Far East, as they changed hands and speculation flew back and forth. There were Indochinese piastres, struck with a seated Marianne, English piastres, with the effigy of a helmeted Britannica, there were Japanese yens and Chinese taels, where nightmarish dragons slunk, and above all there were Mexican piastres, with the heads side engraved with the eagle of liberty vanquishing the serpent, and on the tails side, the haloed Phrygien bonnet. All of the coins were thick and large, struck from pure silver. Many of them were new, because Mexico continued to pour out the overproduction of its mines to both sides of the Pacific, but most were old, worn out, blackened, stained with the thick ink of mysterious stamps from Chinese moneychangers. They had changed many an avaricious yellow hand, had hidden at the bottom of many a deep purse, had purchased a thousand and one commodities that Europe never even dreamed of, and sealed strange deals that the West had never imagined. Perhaps they gave from the frozen Bohai Sea, or maybe from Guangdong where the women didn't bind their feet with their cloth prisons or maybe from dry Yunna, from Chunking where the emperors had been born, perhaps from even further afield, from the distant, unknown provinces where Old China still survived, from Szechuan with its teeming masses, from almost Tartar China, from Shanxi with its graveyard of prehistoric capitols, from the endless expanses of the massive Empire where infinite numbers of Chinese worked, sold, bought, and always tried to get richer.

"If you want to dislike humanity," murmured Malais to Torral, "just look at poker players: you'll find plenty in them to make your pessimism about our race even darker. The veil of society lifts easily from people who win and lose with money. And as much as they might try to be disaffected or to smile, you can see their soul in how they act." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Look at Schmidt - he's a millionaire and yet he's still just as greedy as he always has been, just he's grown fat and his eyes tired from his business. But he still uses his crooked fingers to pile up and count again and again his piastres. And look at Abel - he's a good specimen of our esteemed bureaucrats, so used to playing with other people's money, and it doesn't matter to him whether it's ten, twenty, or a thousand. He only pays attention to the cards and doesn't worry about the game. And then there's Ariette at last - he weighs every option and double guesses every action, measures his adversaries with a glance, closes his eyes so that they can't figure out what he is thinking. It's just like in the courtroom, when he's defending a bad case - he just wants to win."

"You're a good psychologist," said Torral.

"Yes, you have to be if you want to be a tax farmer."

Malais smiled, Torral motioned at Fierce with his eyes."

"And this one?" he asked.

"He's sick." His natural instincts have atrophied away. But gambling will heal him. Give him a bit and you'll see this invalid perk up, reanimate, throw off his normal mask of skepticism and detachment."

"It's not a mask."

"We'll see."

Fortune favored Fierce. he won one of two of the games, and the pile of coins and bills heaped up in front of him was starting to become wild.

"I think," said Malais to Torral again, "that you've spent a lot of time studying the laws and nature of chance. How would you explain the fact that luck seems to come not in isolated pinpricks, but in waves?"

The banker liked to query specialists. But Torral, as bluntly as always, just shrugged his shoulders. "I can't really explain it to you," he said. "You wouldn't understand."

"Thanks," said Malais without anger. "But still, go ahead and do tell."

"Ok. Listen then: If you take all of the matches played since the beginning of the world, then you have an absolute, concrete number, right? Let's make it to so that this number is N."

"N?"

"I told you wouldn't understand. Any of these matches that make up N could have been won or lost, and the combination means that you have a possible number of solutions which is equal to 2^N."

"Oh?"

"Only one of these 2^N solutions can happen, of course. But it happens to be the case that this single result happens in series, and it doesn't play out in isolated answers. That's what the math shows."

Malais raised his eyebrows. Torral, more dryly, kept on in his teacher tone.

"There's a corollary: in the end, that is to say over the course of centuries, N approaches infinity, and 2^N does too, and the probability of this formula I laid out starts to become zero. So in fact, this hypothesis doesn't even exist. We've never actually played poker - it's all just an illusion."

"What?"

"An illusion."

"You're right," said Malais with a shrug. "I don't understand."

'He looked back at the game. At the end of the room, the clock sounded 11 o'clock."

"Gentlemen," said Abel, "we're going to play, if you're willing, the four last hands, since it's starting to get late."

Nobody demured. Abel shuffled the cards. Schmidt took a few bills from his basket that he put in his pocket. Ariette, with furtive darting looks, eyed Fierce's booty, probably aiming to try to take it.

But when the first and second rounds came, Fierce won them both.

It was Ariette's tour to shuffle the cards - for the second to last party - and he put out a big pot. Schmidt looked alarmed and gave up, but Abel and Fierce stuck in. The lawyer The lawyer put down a double but then Fierce threw down a triple ace and won once more.

"What insufferable luck you have!" said Malais.

Fierce turned around to give them a smile. "Let me be ashamed then."

He couldn't be calmer.

"You see," said Torral, "that it isn't just a mask."

The last pot was opened up.

"Fifty piastres," said Abel.

"A hundred," replied Fierce.

"Yes, a hundred."

"Two hundred," Ariette chimed in.

Everyone agreed. They went to the cards.

"Three cards."

"One."

"Three."

"Served," the lawyer said.

He had shuffled his cards for seemingly forever. Malais, curiously, was scrutinizing him closely. But Ariette kept his eyes closed, the spitting image, if a bit ugly, of mystery.

"It's a bluff?" whispered Torral, fascinated despite his disdain.

"I don't think so."

Fierce looked at his last card and passed his turn. Schmidt opened. Abel raised him.

"Two hundred piastres more," said Ariette in an absolutely toneless voice.

Fierce pushed the bills forward.

"Two hundred, and four hundred more."

Abel and Schmidt gave in, one smiling, the other with a sigh.

"Four hundred, and a thousand on that," said Ariette without opening his eyes.

From other tables more players started trickling over to watch. For Saigon it was a big thing - the pot was equivalent to four hundred French louis.

Fierce turned to Malais.

"Please forgive me, I'm not looking after your interests very well, and truth to be told, I'm embarrassed about my luck."

He laid down his cards.

"I'll hold steady, without a raise: royal major flush."

He had the ace, the king, the queen, the jack, and the ten of hours - the unbeatable hand. Ariette, yellow tinted before hand, became a paler shade - his form of growing white. A cry of admiring remarks broke out around the table to congragulate the winner. With rock steady fingers, Fierce raked in the pot and mixed it with his pile of bills, divided it into two, and asked Malais to choose.

But Ariette had regathered himself in a flash.

"Dear sir," he said, "I put my word on a thousand piastres, and I owe you them. You'll receive them tomorrow morning."

"Not too early tomorrow, I beg of you," said the officer with a laugh. "Sometimes I'm not really a morning person.

Ariette was able to laugh with good grace.

"In that case," he said, "let's do something better. I never eat before noon, and I think that might be late enough for you. Please, will you give me the privilege of coming to eat with me tomorrow? I'll give you our little sum there, and you'll spare me a frightening naval trip - your Bayard is so far away from the quay!"

Mentally, Fierce scoffed. A hundred and twenty meters. But without hesitation he responded, "You're too kind, I accept."

"Until tomorrow then," said Ariette. He left with a smile on his lips. The crowd admired his flem, because he had just lost at least 4,000 piastres.

Fierce lit a cigarette. Malais watched him attentively. "I fear that you're even more ill than I thought. My cure didn't work for you."

Fierce smiled.

"Would you have wanted," said Torral, "to see him danse for joy in front of his pile of piastres? He's too civilized for that, our Fierce!"

"Too sick."

He held out his hand to the lieutenant.

"Good night, my partner, try to have a nightmare sometime, that's what would do the best to wake you up."

"You're already going?"

"It's not early any more. Do you know that every morning, at 5 o'clock, I ride my horse on the steeplechase track? There's nothing better to prepare you for the daily grind. Good night."

Torral sniggered. "What a life you have, with all of your millions, that you have to go to sleep to wake up early, right when the city is starting to get fun!"

The banker turned around. "It's a matter of taste. You sleep during the day and I sleep at night: is that really so surprising?"

"No," said the engineer. "But I work to live, and you live to work, and that's awful to me."

"That's too bad then," said Malais coldly. "I hope you'll permit me to stay that way, since that's how I find happiness in life. What else do you want! You have to take me as I am, or not at all. I'm not a civilized man of your type - my life is much more simple than yours and it's organized how I like it: I make money and I sleep with my wife."

"And make children with her."

"When I can."

They looked at each other with smiles of mutual dislike.

"In fact," said Malais caustically, "that's the advantage of my type of person over you: you will die, but I will live on through my descendents."

"The greatest pride of the civilized man," replied Torral, "is to not have a successor. You've already achieved what you want on the planet, what's the use of having someone else around once you're gone?"

"A madman's pride."

"You think I'm crazy, right?"

"Yes... and destructive as well."

Torral shrugged, and Malais left.

Silently, Fierce lit another cigarette. The engineer turned to him. "Are you coming?"

"Wherever you want."

They left together. Fierce's piastres clinked noisily in his heavy pocket. He thought melancholily that all that he had won hadn't made him an iota happier.

"Two, three thousand piastres," he thought to himself. "At the normal going rates for woman you'd be able to pay for a whole regiment's night..."

"Where are we going?" asked Torral.

"Damn if I know! Life is such a stupid game!"

French Text

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