“Death is no friend to man, not ever.”

Malevil — Robert Merle


Today’s translated work is Robert Merle’s Malevil, first published in French in 1972 and translated  into English by Derek Coltman in 1973. I remember it being pretty popular in the 1970s, enough that it got a movie adaptation in 1981, but as far as I can tell it has almost entirely fallen into obscurity1 and out of print. That’s a pity, because Merle has some interesting angles on well-tested tropes.

Merle sets the stage with a certain deliberation. The book eventually depicts a war in 1978, but his story begins in 1948, as a series of memoirs by protagonist Emmanuel Comte. In part this is to establish hardworking, ambitious Emmanuel and his closest friends — Peyssou, Colin, Thomas, Meyssonnier — as characters. But the prologue serves another purpose: to foreshadow the great loss the survivors suffer by showing the world in which they once lived.

By 1978, enough time has gone by since the first use of the atomic bomb that people have convinced themselves that it will never be used again:

In a consumer society the product consumed by man in largest quantities is optimism. Since the days when it became known that the planet was gorged with everything needed to destroy it — and if necessary our neighbor planets as well — somehow we had all learned to sleep peacefully at nights again. And oddly enough, the very excess of those terrifying weapons and the growing number of nations possessing them had actually proved a factor in our gradual reassurance. From the fact that since 1945 none of them had yet been used, it was emotionally deduced that no one would ever dare to and that nothing was going to happen. This false security in which we lived had even been found a name and given the semblance of a grand strategy. It was called “the balance of terror.”

In this book, unlike other works I have examined, the end comes out of the blue. There is no hint of the calamity to come and no chance for the average person to avoid it.

And another thing needs to be said. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in the weeks preceding Zero Day made it possible to predict it. There were wars, of course, and famines and massacres. And here and there a few atrocities. Some of them flagrant (in the underdeveloped countries), others less obvious (in the Christian countries). But nothing, taken all in all, in any way different from what we had been seeing for the past thirty years. And all of these things had in any case occurred at a convenient distance, among peoples far removed from us. We were distressed by them, of course, we expressed indignation, signed petitions, or even donated small sums of money on occasions. But at the same time, in our heart of hearts, after having dutifully experienced these vicarious sufferings, we returned to our usual feeling of security. Death was something that always happened to others.

I remembered I reread this for my Lost Voices reviews but that was in 2000 — I can tell from the receipts inside my battered copy of Malevil — and I think that’s enough time to take another look at it. One difference between this read and my last one is that I hadn’t reread Lucifer’s Hammer in the recent past and so it never occurred to me to compare the two.

The first hint that Emmanuel and his friends get that their world has ended is when the lights go out and the radio goes dead; all France has just died in an immense flash2 but because Emmanuel and his friends happen to be in the wine cellar of Malevil, an Anglo-Saxon fortification from the days of the Hundred Years War, they are spared the immediate effects. They only barely survive the sound of the destruction and the heat as a nation-wide firestorm sweeps France.

When they emerge from their accidental shelter, Emmanuel and his friends find a world in which almost every scrap of life has been burned away. This is a great blow to those of the group who had families outside the castle. Thanks to the sturdy construction of Malevil, their own short term survival is assured but everyone in Malevil is aware that they are a collection of men and one old lady. Today they live but at some point the last of them will die of old age or calamity. Unless there are other survivors, that will be it for humanity.

Happily, it turns out the survivors in Malevil are not the only ones who were in the right place at the right time to have survived the event. The survivors — in the castle and in nearby La Roque, sheltered by convenient geography — settle down to building a new world from the scraps that remain. Life slowly returns to France and while it is a barren thing compared the world that was, it’s better than nothing.

There are two snakes in this garden. One is Fulbert, a supposed priest, who with the help of a couple of confederates has bullied and threatened his way into control of La Roque. Control of La Roque is not enough for the cleric; Malevil’s continued independence vexes Fulbert sorely and he spends much of the book angling to gain control of it, outmaneuvered at every turn by the cunning Emmanuel.

Fulbert on his own is almost comic relief, doomed to fail whenever he reaches out towards Malevil. The true threat is Vilmain, a survivor who has used terror and murder to assemble a band of well-armed men and who plans to use that army to carve out a respectable kingdom for himself. Where Fulbert rules by controlling scarce resources and with veiled threats, Vilmain and his army are much more direct in their methods and while Emmanuel has his castle, Vilmain has a bazooka.

It isn’t clear to me how big the calamity was or if it was really a nuclear attack. The characters assume all France burned and that all the other nations died in similar events. While the radio silence is suggestive, I wonder if it would occur to any survivors in Eurasia or elsewhere to even look for survivors in la France Brulée.

The theme of ‘small samples can have very skewed distribution’ turns up over and over in this. Survivors discover that their group is mostly men or that their limited supply of horses is composed entirely of mares. I applaud the author’s grasp of probability.

Like most people, when I read the sections outlining the scale of the calamity, I immediately wondered “What implications does Wilson and MacArthur’s The Theory of Island Biogeography have for this particular post-war world? What sort of new ecological regime will take hold?” The event, whatever it was, preferentially killed lifeforms exposed to the sky; will this be reflected in the ecologies a thousand years down the line or were there enough chance survivors from surface-dwelling species to re-establish familiar patterns?

On the whole, despite the scale of the calamity this is a much … kinder novel than many of its American cousins. The survivors are in a desperate situation and they commit terrible acts but Emmanuel tries to err on the side of mercy when possible; one would-be bandit is killed outright while trying to ambush Emmanuel but his family is invited to the castle3, as are other reformed miscreants. The exceptions occur when no other alternatives present themselves; Emmanuel kills a band of crazed survivors too hungry to listen to reason and the community as a whole prefers eliminating bandit gangs root and branch.

Something I noticed the last time I read this is that while Emmanuel and his pals are as big a collection of male chauvinist pigs as any set of characters from a Niven and Pournelle novel, Merle does not appear to be entirely on their side. Despite being a compulsive womanizer, Emmanuel is rarely the one who gets to begin or end love affairs and while the men have the annoying habit of convening for Very Serious Discussions about how to manage their scarce supply of young women, discussions the women are not invited to join, those discussions never have the slightest effect on what the women actually do. The cumulative effect of the contrast between male pretensions and reality is pretty funny and I hope it is intentional.

I have nothing to say about the killer transvestite who shows up at one point except to say there’s a lot of build-up about how dangerous Bébelle is for very little pay-off beyond underlining how much of a role chance and ignorance play in military affairs. Well, and maybe also “occupied territory is no place to take a casual stroll alone.”

Another significant difference between this and many American post-apocalyptic works is that the region around Malevil has well-established social strata and is extremely rustic — even in 1978, many of the homes lack running water. Yet although the survivors are surrounded by remnants of the Middle Ages, from vestigial social structures to architecture, nobody worth listening to suggests reverting to a feudal society. There are survivors who push for a feudal arrangement but those characters are opportunistic villains and not protagonists4. The general trend is towards a simple democracy rather than away from it.

I invite speculation about why a French novel would favour democracy when American post-apocalyptic novels think - or perhaps firmly assert is better - that democracy would not survive.

As far as I can tell, this book is very much out of print, although the movie appears to be available for legal purchase.

  1. Although the last time I read this (in a coffee shop) my waitress — much younger than I am — was reading it as well. Notes I took at the time say “presumably in French.” No idea why I thought that. 
  2. One character firmly asserts that “one large bomb would be enough, exploded twenty-five miles up, above Paris.”
    I am not going to admit how much time I spent trying to work out the yield of such a device but it’s in the multiple gigaton range. And while everyone assumes that the event was centered on Paris because “French”, Bourges is a better ground zero for the purposes of setting all France alight.
  3. It helps that the bandit believed in self-sufficiency and that his heirs have all manner of Useful Stuff, not least of which is a stallion to go with the Emmanuel’s mares.
  4. One of the sympathetic characters does go off the rails and veer towards autocracy but it ends tragically for him.

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