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Lost Voices 26: Malevil by Robert Merle


By Robert Merle 

15 May, 2000

Lost Voices


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Robert Merle [Translated from French by Derek Coltman]

Warner Paperbacks [1975]

589 pages

Synopsis: Emmanuel and his childhood friends live in the vicinity of Malejac, a small, isolated and backwards French village. Gathered together in Emmanuel’s wine cellar in Malevil, a restored castle [Built courtesy of the English forces in the Hundred Years War] near Malejac for a political meeting, the five friends, Emmanuel’s maid and her mentally deficient son are spared instant death as a flash of heat, possibly from a very large nuclear device exploded over Paris.

Surveying their resources, the seven are dejected: they have six men and an elderly lady, plus some animals. Several of the men were married but an expedition to Malejac shows everyone there has been burned to death, reduced to ashes and bones. Only people fortunate enough to have been protected as the seven were could have survived. That there are other survivors in the region becomes obvious when Peyssou, one of the seven, is knocked out and one of the precious horses stolen. Tracking the horse leads them into direct conflict with a local troglodyte’, a backwoods man who is even more out of contact with the modern world than the town of Malejac was. They kill the troglodyte and take in his son Jacquette, his mute daughter Miette, and his mother-in-law La Falvine.

There is the possibility of conflict over Miette and a meeting by the men to decide what to do about the single, attractive woman. After they vote on the matter, Miette on her own decides to sleep with each man in his turn, making the matter of the vote irrelevant.

The nearby town of La Roque is also a refuge, protected by a cliff and about twenty people have lived through the holocaust. The people at Malevil discover this when a self-declared priest, Fulbert, shows up. AT first, Fulbert attempts to simply demand resources from Malevil but Emmanuel and his friends see this as a first step in La Roque expecting tribute and instead drive hard bargain, getting guns and the last two mares in the region for food. They travel to La Roque, where they discover that Fulbert has set himself up as the local ruler, using a monopoly on food and a bullyboy to keep people in line. Emmanuel and his friends make local allies in La Roque and return to Malevil with two more women: Catie, the sister of Miette and Evelyn, a sickly young teenager. Catie is in theory married to Thomas, one of the friends but eventually ends up sharing all the men with her sister. Evelyn is far too young and ill to join in but develops a crush on Emmanuel.

They suffer their first casualty: Momo, the mentally retarded man, is killed by refugees who are in their turn all killed by the inhabitants of Malevil. Gradually, relations between La Roque and Malevil worsen as Fulbert sees Malevil as an unacceptable affront to his authority, especially after Emmanuel is voted the Abbe of Malevil rather than accept the priest Fulbert has chosen for them. Malevil carefully plans a pre-emptive attack on La Roque to oust Fulbert but discovers that someone else has beaten them to it: a gang of ex-army men and recruits” barely above the level of slaves have taken the ineptly defended town. Oddly, Fulbert has managed to retain much of his power, working willingly with the army men. The military folk are well armed and brutal, slaughtering a nearby family of survivors for resisting too successfully. It is clearly a matter of time before they will try to take Malevil to serve as their base of operations as they loot what is left of France.

The people of Malevil consider their position and set up a number of ambushes, believing that the army will use a frontal attack only once before falling back on guerilla techniques which will greatly favour the army. Two of the army recruits have secretly joined the Malevil cause, providing a useful source of information for Malevil. The ambushes are successful, killing all but two of the attackers, both also recruits like the two turncoats. Only the matter of Fulbert remains: they trick Fulbert into thinking Emmanuel has been captured and let him stage a mock trial, unaware the soldiers are all working for Malevil now. Fulbert betrays himself and manages to enrage the mob into killing him once it is revealed he is without army support.

One of Malevil’s number, Meyssonnier, allows himself to be appointed Mayor of La Roque, an event which is associated with sadness as this marks the beginning of the separation of the five friends who survived the flash. Work is begun to improve the defenses of La Roque and to set up trade between the two communities. A third adult woman, Agnes, joins Malevil’s polyamorous set-up. Malevil has a large technical library and Emmanuel expects that recovery to previous levels of civilization is not only possible but will take less time than it took to reach them in the first place.

In an afterword by Thomas, one of the five, the history of the next few years is sketched out: the tragic death by appendicitis of Emmanuel, the grief-stricken suicide of Evelyn afterwards, the death of La Menou, the old lady who served as the caretaker of Malevil for so many years and many births. Emmanuel’s successor Colin proves to be a bad leader but gets himself killed through recklessness before an open revolt occurs. Thomas is now leader and the twin communities of La Roque and Malevil indeed seems well on the way to recovery, albeit in a biologically impoverished setting.

Malevil stood up far better than I feared: Merle takes a different approach to his post-holocaust story than many Anglophone authors, detailing the personal histories of the five friends back to 1948 and that of the region around Malevil back to the Hundred Years War. Even after the event, whatever it was1, events proceed in a leisurely fashion, until the confrontation with the fake army. Merle is fortunate that the translator seems to have done a competent job translating the text, unlike the hackjobs other non-Anglophone authors’ works have been subject to.

If one can find a copy of Malevil it is well worth reading.

One aspect which strikes me now is how foreign Malevil, Malejac and to a lesser extent La Roque are to a reader from Ontario: before the war large parts of Malejac lacked running water. This is in ‑1977-! It’s hard to think that there might be room for such a backwards community what is by Canadian standards a small and densely populated industrial nation. It is lucky for these people that they are so unsophisticated: they put their natural xenophobia and localprejudices to good use surviving the aftermath and are able to adapt to the loss of technology better than one expects the majority of the people in more sophisticated communities have.

It would be interesting to see what sort of community these folk have in a thousand years: They have deliberately merged the local head of state and of the church, they are forced by the shortage of women to abandon monogamy and because Fulbert abused confession, have replaced private confession with public self-criticism [and other-criticism] sessions.

Robert Merle is only in these reviews as an artifact of his native language: as far as I can tell, he is still happily writing in French but I was unable to find translations of his books more recent than 1990, nor any from any time in print. By one of those odd coincidences, my waitress on Sunday morning was French and is in the middle of reading Malevil, in French I presume.

1: They believe it was a nuclear attack on Paris, but several facts seem to me to contradict this: there is never a rise in background radiation and they comment on how certain species seem to have been completely wiped out, including insects. We don’t have the ability to flash-burn the entire surface of the Earth so insect populations ‑should- be recolonizing France and the other affected areas from unaffected regions.

By the end of the book they don’t seem to have done this, so the affected region must be very large indeed.

One hopes enough of the ecosystem survived to avoid a further crash as the disconnected bits of the previous system die off through lack of necessary species.