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The Civilized, Chapter 22 - English Translation of Les Civilisés


English Text

A host of squadrons - English, German, Russian, American - lay at anchor at Hong-Kong, and the war harbor, clogged with ships, seemed like a floating cosmopolitan city, an international Venice, where every flag in the world floated above an archipelago of steel palaces. Side by side, the cruisers and battleships were arrayed friendlily, heedless of ancient quarrels or of future wars. Peace was in the air: the crews fraternized.

Launches, cutters, and whaleboats passed each other in a cheerfully confused constant coming-and-going. There were visits, greetings, a bit of spying: the constant parade of aides de camp received by volleys from honor guards, and the messed and the wardrooms were fashionable salons where champagne flowed without end: English, French, Russian, even Japanese conversations echoed throughout, like a modern Tower of Babel.

That lasted the day, and the evening brought a burst of agitation in the fleet and in the feverish city. When the sun plunged into the pink sea, flags pompously descended from poles and masts - glorified by the sound of trumpets, guns, and drums, and national anthems sang out in the twilight, with each ship playing first its own then all of the others by courtesy. It was a confused and tangled melody that ended, officially, daylight life.

But now it was the turn of nightlight to take wings. At night the lighthouses, the beacons, the lanterns, and every window in the city lit up. The city's neighborhoods were a wring of fire around the harbor, and the ships in the center replied to the lights of the city with their own dazzling electric searchlights that lit up every direction. Here and there, on the black water, the spray flung up by the steam launches glimmered in the darkness. And with boats laden heavily in the waters, the tumultuous hordes of sailors went to storm the city, swarming ashore by battalions and regiments en masse.

The quays shimmered, white as snow underneath the arc lights. Stone steps led down to the lapping waves where the boats with their swarming masses rocked. At the bottom of the stairs, white, red, and green lanterns danced a luminous polka on the swells: above, the rickshaws and the palanquins milled about as the Asian drivers and porters shouted angrily at each other, their rainbow array of lanterns bobbing up and down. The rushing and singing sailors crammed into vehicles, with shouts, whistles, pleas - all of the noise drowned out by the immense Chinese clamor, deafeningly loud, rough, sing-song, mysterious.

In the night streaked with shadows and the flash of lights, the galop of drivers and porters vanished into the general hubbub. They were off, climbing up steep streets and the endless stairways, to the heart of the Chinese city, the city which never sleeps. The banks, the clubs, the European trading houses were laid out in a single long street parallel to the quay - the Queen's Street, a street which other than a few local particularities, could belong to any English colonial city. But as soon as you stepped off from it, Chinese Hong Kong began in all of its intensity. It wasn't just Chinese, since there were also Parsis, Tagalogs, Macanese, Japanese, and every color in between under the sun. People swarmed about constantly, from twilight to dawn, in the maze of streets that felt more like an underground labyrinth. There were crowds, brawls, fights, and the stunning power of a hundred thousand voices shouting over each other. Sikh policemen, towering with their red turbans, only dealt with knives and club blows: anything else went, and every night felt like another riot.

In this sabbath, the sailors lusting after wine, cries, women, and copious orgies found enough for their fill. In the dark night, everyone began their own party.

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Later on, after dinner and in formal launches, the officers invaded the land in turn - a second invasion, and barely quieter than the first one. The sailors from the squadrons didn't mix amongst each other, struggling with the language gap, and it was only at the end of the evening that their drunkenness led them to group up in cosmopolitan bands. The officers, by contrast, were multilingual enough that they fraternized enthusiastically. All soldiers by trade, their only job being to kill each other at the first order, they had a close comradery, a condottieri affection, ready to loyally rip each others' throats out on command but without any hatred, and completely indifferent and disdainful of the disputes that sent them off to war. They laughed, drank, swore together: they shared the same bottles and the same mistresses.

What joyful nights! At first they tired themselves out in carefree wandering that trecked all across the city, from the highest to the lowest quarters. Then they gathered together in crowds in the suitable quartier of Cochraine Street, and went off to assault the sordid houses with their female booty within. The doors gave way to kicks, the wooden stairs pounded like drums under the crash of boots, and women, crowded into messy salons, gave frightened shrieks and timid smiles.

The debauchery started with abandon, proudly: it was a spectacle of force and violence, searching for the illusion of a conquered city being sacked: glasses were shattered against walls, piastres flew about by handfuls. The women, used to these naval raids, bowed and scraped and held out their hands - and all of them, all - yellow Cantonese with petite bare feet, northern Chinese girls bedecked with pearls, round and painted Japanese girls, Macanese with Spanish eyes, gypsies who conjured up images of Europe - accepted willingly the quick embrace of Western soldiers. From the open windows, you could see the orgies across from you - half-naked couples crying out to each other from one house to another. And the tumult from the street swam in through the windows too, with the provocative cries, obscene shouts, the fury of brawls. The city of Hong Kong itself only occupied the lower slopes of the mountain. Higher up, there were the levels for the villas, tall trees, and silence. Shadowy trails led over terrasses, and on calm nights, the Moon, refracted by the shrubbery, cast mosaics of shadow and light upon the white soil.

On these terrasses, exquisitely refreshing, and dreamily calm, Fierce often came to dream away the first few hours of the night. But when he left to return onboard, he had to trek through the screaming city, seized by its lust. And as he brushed against the badly closed doors of the hovels, and the stink of the debauchery washed over him from them, lightning memories twitched in his mind and his flesh - unhealthy memories that called out to him with the voluptuous siren song of nostalgia.

French Text

  1. Chapter 1
  2. Chapter 2
  3. Chapter 3
  4. Chapter 4
  5. Chapter 5
  6. Chapter 6
  7. Chapter 7
  8. Chapter 8
  9. Chapter 9
  10. Chapter 10
  11. Chapter 11
  12. Chapter 12
  13. Chapter 13
  14. Chapter 14
  15. Chapter 15
  16. Chapter 16
  17. Chapter 17
  18. Chapter 18
  19. Chapter 19
  20. Chapter 20
  21. Chapter 21
  22. Chapter 22
  23. Chapter 23
  24. Chapter 24
  25. Chapter 25
  26. Chapter 26
  27. Chapter 27
  28. Chapter 28
  29. Chapter 29
  30. Chapter 30
  31. Chapter 31
  32. Chapter 32
  33. Chapter 33
  34. Chapter 34
  35. Chapter 35
  36. Chapter 36

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