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The Civilized, Chapter 26 - English Translation of Les Civilisés


English Text

The Avalanche, a tiny little gunboat with a 25 man crew, weighed anchor two hours before sunset to steam up the river. Saigon vanished behind the protective forests of betel nut palms, only the twin towers of its cathedral remaining above the horizon for long, like two jagged rocks jetting out from the sea of trees. The river twisted and turned in meanders. On the bridge, the Annamite pilot motioned to the navigable channels through the waters and sometimes the gunboat almost beached on the banks of the river. From there they saw the slideshow of the scenery passing by their side, with the tight knit forests and at their feet the swampy soil: from time to time a rice paddy shone emerald green among the brown trees, and natives, coming out of a few of their invisible huts, silently watched the ship steam past.

Night came, without twilight as its messenger. Worried about navigational hazards, Fierce anchored in the middle of the river. The surrounding nighttime woods exhaled a strong pungent musty odor, and the muffled sound of the forest wrapped them in a shrouded bubble. All throughout the torrid night, Fierce stayed on the bridge, searching for a breath of coolness.

There was a feverish feeling in his blood. He felt superstitious and fearful. Fate which had for a month stubbornly kept him away from Sélysette was clearly no simple bad luck. There was an inexplicability about it, the shadowy hand of a hostile power, lurking around perhaps in this troubled night, ready to strike him down with new blows.

When dawn came, the Avalanche set off again. Days passed, the same as before.

The native revolt had burst into flame suddenly and seized the land like wildfire. Two provinces had risen up in two days, burning their villages, mutilating the French residents, attacking residences and defended posts. Blood had flowed readily and quickly. Then, when the French launched their counter-attack and flying columns were sent off against the rebels, a sudden silence had replaced the tumult, and everyone went to earth against the invasion. An Asian style of war began - sneaky and stubborn.

There were no battles. Instead there were ambushes, traps, a rifle shot that cracked out from a hedge, a sentinel with his throat cut while he stood watch, before he could utter a shout. Soldiers went mad in this fight against an enemy they couldn't see: the only good fighters with the Annamite tirailleurs, patient and as cold as their enemy. And they fought ferociously, because it was against their compatriots, and civil wars in Asia - and in Europe - are merciless.

The gunboats patrolled from stream to stream. Sometimes, rarely, they tested the woods with a few shells. The insurgents were afraid of them and stayed away. They disdained bullets and shelling, but their religious beliefs, encouraged and upheld by their elites, held that hostile machines filled these machines that were day or night shrouded in smoke and sparks. The gunboats came and went in vain, because everyone fled before them.

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So it was a war of long useless voyages, on false intelligence given by false spies. The village they were to bombard couldn't be found, or it was already in ashes, the war sampans that were supposed to be at the end of a tributary turned out to just be a few rotten logs. The frustrated commanders tried some more ambitious operations from time to time: they would focus on fifteen places in the country, would bolster the lines, increase rear guards, the gunships bar every waterway, and they would advance cautiously with every precaution, marching quietly through empty woods. The noose would tighten - but every time on just air. But night fell, and in the dark undergrowth, a tardy gunfight would break out: bullets shrieking to the river, and the gunboat's metal plinking as they bounced off. At last, a real battle which lasted until dawn. But when dawn came, the firefight stopped suddenly, because they had been wrong - there was no enemy after all. Confused of betrayed, they had been shooting at each and killing each other by mistake. Ten, twenty friendly dead. They would bury them - and then go back to the same cyle of errors. They killed and died without glory, despondently and weary.

The soldiers were more exhausted and the sailors more bored. The gunboats were like being cloistered away in a convent, where it was impossible to leave, hidden away from the world. Every evening, in the dark about the events of the day, they would anchor isolated, in the middle of the river, far from treacherous banks where nighttime boarding parties might strike out from for their silent and bloody work. But however far they were, they couldn't avoid the torrid warmth of the forest, or the sensual smell of the perfume of flowers and leaves, and the fetid smell of the damp earth. They were living nights, full of noise and rustling. The forest swarmed with secret things, that they heard creeping, breathing, panting. A constant buzz rose from the wall of trees, and sometimes, crashes rang out, nerve-wracking since they were so close, the sound of pounding feet on the ground, splashes into the river, the cries of beasts hunting or in heat. In the entire world there's nothing that lives more sensually than a tropical forest.

Fierce, from his captain's chair, listened to and breathed in the forest.

He had been chaste for three months. Loyally and proudly, he kept himself pure for his wife to be. The month of absence and exile had been hard for determination: nihilism and doubt had started to sap his will again, but not debauchery: as soon as it started to creep its tendrils in, it fled before him. His celibacy was his last pride, that kept alive the hope of avoiding a final fall. His flesh at least would be worth of Sélysette. The new life that he dreamed of, a faithful and moral one - he was still capable of reaching it. His dream still lived.

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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