Thursday, December 8, 2011

Malevil: A Review

Robert Merle's Malevil is a post nuclear apocalyptic story set in Southern France.  It is often listed among the classics of the genre, and was made into a (apparently not very good) movie.  The book is out of print, and in enough demand that online copies tend to be somewhat pricey.  But it sold many many copies in mass paperback printings so can still be found occasionally in your dusty old used book stores.

Czech Addition cover which I choose because it is the only one that actually seems to be making an effort to correctly portray Malevil Castles layout

Merle was a Frenchman who was assigned as a translator for the British during World War 2.  He was captured at Dunkerque.  Many of the French soldiers (~60%) were not released until the end of the war: which would make for a long captivity: 1940 to 1945.  That Merle has a clue about military organization, weapons, and tactics is evident in the books writing.

The book begins with our hero, Emmanuel Comte, reminiscing over his past, in specific in the time before “the day it happened.”   The day that is uncomfortable for them to directly address in their very different lives.  He is by pondering Proust and his madeleines (cakes).

I envy Proust.  At least he had a solid foundation under him while he explored his past: a certain present, an indubitable future.  But for us the past is doubly past, our “time past: is doubly inaccessible, because included in it is the whole universe in which that time flowed.  There has been a complete break.  The forward march of the ages has been interrupted.  We no longer know where or when we are.  Or whether there is to be any future at all.

He then goes into a number of little memories of his life before the collapse.  He gives the feel for a the life of an educated horse breeder who lives just outside a small farming village in Southern France.  Many of these are very funny, but they also add a deep background that creates an attachment to both the characters and the place.

But at the very end of these remembrances, he turns philosophic once more:

In a consumer society the product consumed by man in the 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 neighboring planets as well – somehow we had all learned to sleep peacefully at nights again.  And oddly enough, the very excesses 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 use, it was emotionally deduced that no 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.”

…Nothing, absolutely nothing, in the weeks preceding Zero Day made it possible to predict it.
The story has an odd sub-theme:  that of having far too many men surviving in the group relative to the number of women.    There is an odd sort of “free love – polygamy” theme (pro and con) that runs throughout the book.  I suspect that Merle intended this point to be controversial.  However, I don’t recall anyone commenting on it, and did not recall it from reading it as a teenager.   I think the “controversy“ is lost on an American audience that somewhat suspects that the French act this way all the time.

Malevil itself is a large keep built built by the English  that at one time was the headquarters of the Black Prince during the 100 years war. Eventually the English were driven out, but the castle remained. As it was too much of a fortification to remain comfortable as a residence, it fell into disuse and decay. The hero of the story, a retired schoolmaster and horse breeder is able to buy it with a tiny bit of money left to him by his uncle.  He rebuilds the vineyards, and fixes up the castle-keep with the idea of making it a tourist attraction. 

When the bombs start flying, or really one very big clean "Lithium" bomb,  Emmanuel is in the basement bottling some of the wine.  His group of close friends from childhood stop by to talk politics and are thus saved from being roasted.

I won't go into the survival details at great length.  What is nice though is that these are rural people.  They are either tradesman, animal husbandman, or farmers.  They know about the basics, and don't even discuss it.  Before the air has even cooled from the explosion, they are watching that their resources don't run low.   There is lots of personal interplay, but less of it is of the middle-class crybaby variety that you get in many American or British apocalypse-in=progress offerings.

There is not tons of combat, but what there is has a sense of reality.  Odd improbable things happen in combat.   At one point the Malevilians (good guys) have this elaborate trap-like plan that goes for naught when everyone on both sides opens up just outside of effective range and goes to ground.  When people are shot, they often don't die, or die very slowly.   Moral is often more important than the actual firepower involved.  An expected attack by a bazooka is ineffective, a surprise attack from the rear with a bow is devastating.    When the bad guys act somewhat roadwarrior-like toward their own recruits, they pay heavily for it:  an indication of why bad guys don't actually use those methods to maintain group cohesion.

So what is my personal opinion? The book is a classic.  It deserves to be a classic.  It is not perfect, but it gives a lengthy entertaining story, and if read carefully, a lot to think about.  It is not as dated as one would expect given the many years that have passed.

It is a cozy. To be honest, that is why it is enjoyable.  It is much harder to make an entertaining novel where people flounder around and fail (see The Road).   There is a little more reality in its cozyness in so far as the narrator makes it clear that survival is still in doubt, but a cozy none-the-less.

Ease of readability (1 to 7 with 7 high),  I would rate at a 5.  I am going to deduct one point for length and one point for the occasional slow pacing/philosophizing.  However, the writing quality is such that I am tempted to give it an "L" (Literary) rating when it comes to the review roundup latter.

Grittiness/reality is tough.  Cozies tend to reduce their reality by their very nature.  But the author really has a feel for his animal care, and the limited fighting is reasonably well done.    I don't take off point for the implausibility of the collapse source ("clean" Lithium Hydrogen Bombs), but the geography of the castle and a few convenient story points keep me from saying that it is the absolute true reality:   So we will say that it is a six.  If they were typical Americans you might knock off additional points for their not complaining about the limited means, lack of electricity, etc.


Anonymous said...

This is a good book that I read a long time ago when I was young. Americans now are totally dependent on electricity. When this book was written all of my aunts and uncles remembered living without electricity, running water and indoor plumbing. They would have been about the same ages as the characters. So, not only was that generation more stoic than today's, many had experience of living without conveniences that we call necessities.

russell1200 said...

By the 1970s even most homes even in rural areas (90+%) would have had electricity. But that would have still left a lot of people who grew up without it. The spread from the 1920s through the 1970s was astonishingly fast.

a fellow reader said...

Thanks for posting on this book, I've not managed to find a copy of it, it is indeed expensive but it's definitely on my to be read list, (somewhere near the top), another book crying out for a re-print.

russell1200 said...

Thank you FR.

Its price goes up and down. It is definitely a volume where patience can be a virtue. It was a mass paperback, and made into a movie, so you know there are copies floating around out there.

Your linked-website is interesting. Maybe I will find some interesting reading material there.