Friday, October 5, 2012

Ashes, Ashes: A Review

René Barjavel's Ashes, Ashes (translation: Damon Knight), or Ravage as it was titled in its original French versions, is an apocalypse-in-progress novel, published in the non-occupied, Vichy,  portion of conquered France during World War 2.  Set in the than far future of 2053, the novel  describes the effects of an atomic war.  Since this story is prior to the making of the first atomic bomb by the United States, the effects are fantastical at times, but at least the initial events come very close to that imagined by an EMP-strike.  The atomic weapons change the physics of their strike area so as to make electrical and many other modern mechanical devices inoperable.

U.S. first edition cover

René Barjavel (1911-1985) was a French science fiction writer who is best known for being the originator of the "time paradox" in his 1943 novel Le Voyageur imprudent. What is most interesting to me, and as we will explore, is his direct connection to wartime Vichy French propaganda, and its fairly direct association with Nazi Germany.  Outside of the specialist academia circles, the root source of this novel is rarely commented on.

The leaders of Vichy France, shared a number of ideological beliefs in common with their Nazi co-rulers.  As it is easier to find information on the Nazis we will start with some of their thoughts, as they influenced this novel, and then shift to their French cousins.

Outside of their militaristic and genocidal tendencies, Nazi ideology is not particularly well understood today.  As they shared various beliefs that cross across the boundaries of today’s political divide, there is a lot of recent fruitless discussion as to whether they were liberals or conservatives, and as we will see with this novel, the Vichy themselves send some rather mixed signals.

One keystone of Nazi ideology was national economic independence.  The vulnerability of Germany to economic blockade was one of the key driving forces in their economic policies.  One example would be the synthetic fuelplants that they built.  Synthetic fuel in this case, involves turning coal, which Germany had a lot of, into various liquid fuels, such as aviation fuel, gasoline, et cetera. 
The area of self sufficiency that we are interested in is agriculture.  It is very closely tied Hitler's stated goal for starting the war, increased living space (lebensraum)to the east.  Here we have Hitler’s response to a greeting from the leaders of a German Farmers Rally in 1936 (link).

I express my genuine thanks for the loyalty and support that you have given me in the name of German farming leaders gathered at the Fourth Reich Farmers’ Rally. I greet the entire German rural population, whose knowledge and abilities are being used to the utmost in the battle of the goal of German agricultural freedom. For centuries, German farmers have guided the plow in times of peace, and taken up the sword in times of need and danger to defend German blood, to protect German soil. Party Comrade Darré, I am confident that under your leadership the German rural population will overcome the hardest challenges.

Yours, Adolf Hitler”

All of this talk of battle is taking place at the very early stage of Germany's resurgent period, with the remilitarization of the Rhineland occurring in January of 1936.  The Nazi’s viewed the rural farm areas with a sort of rose tinted wonder.  It was the idealized lifeblood of the Nation.   The French Petainists, the rulers of Vichy France in 1943, were very much in agreement with this portion of the Nazi's ideals.

Even in 1943, the changing role of woman in an increasingly industrialized and commercial world was a controversial issue.  Tired of the crass commercialism of the 1920s that had lead to the Great Depression, they favored a hierarchical society where everyone was in and knew their place.  France in particular was already having problems with a low birth rate, and the place of women was to be at home raising lots of children.  This is the world that is idealized in Ashes Ashes.

Poster from a 1936 German (Nazi) farmer's rally

Which bring us to our novel.  Ashes Ashes - Ravage was not just a science fiction piece published as a commercial effort to earn the author money.  It was propaganda. 

After France was conquered by the Germans, the French conservatives led by Petain and the Vichy French government set up a government in the unoccupied Southern France, and the overseas colonies that did not join the Free-French movement.   Note, that while it is true that they had to be careful not to upset the conquering Germans, the Vichy went far beyond the minimum required.  Fighting their former allies, the British (and later Americans) tooth and nail over every French colony which the allies moved into, and putting up no resistance to German or Japanese occupation of their remaining  homeland areas (Germans) or colonies (Japanese in French Indochina - a.k.a. Vietnam).  They sent a Légion des Volontaires (Volunteer Legion) to the Eastern Front to fight the Soviets.

Along with this very supportive attitude toward their conquerors, they quickly adopted a propaganda initiative which dovetailed with the German ideas that they found to their liking.  The traditional French motto from their revolution had been Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.  This was  changed to the somewhat unwieldy,  "It is through work, the respect of Traditions, Order, and Family that we will stand" ("C'est par le travail, le respect des traditions, l'ordre, la famille, que nous nous relaverons").

Many writers contributed to this cause.  One of them was René Barjavel who worked in the office of their ministry of propoganda.  So what exactly is this novel trying to accomplish?

Andrew Soboanet, French Forum, Spring 2007 (alternate link)

René Barjavel's science fiction novel Ravage which was published by Denoal in 1943... Completed on September 6, 1942 €”just two months before the invasion of the unoccupied zone by German troops — Ravage portrays an ideal society that has a successful post-apocalypse renaissance. That societal rebirth is founded upon a strict adherence to traditionalist priorities and values similar to those promoted by the Vichy government, such as discipline, loyalty, hard work, and a high birth rate. Indeed, I argue that Barjavel uses the utopian traditional conventions of speculative fiction to illustrate the potential for national regeneration and renovation promoted by those Pétainist ideals.
Circumstantial evidence suggesting collaborationist tendencies on the part of Barjavel is reinforced by very strong parallels that exist between the ideas promoted by the author's popular science fiction novel and policies that were pushed and put into effect by the Vichy regime. Indeed, Petain's call for work, family, order, and tradition could have just as easily been uttered by the novel's protagonist, Francois Deschamps, who becomes the patriarch of a post-apocalypse commune in Provence and through whose leadership the region cultivates a prosperous, ordered, and well-populated agrarian society. Much like the Marechal himself, Francois incarnates the values of his new society, and his goal is to lead a battered and broken nation to a state of renewed vigor.
In some notes to a conference discussion, this author further elaborates:

Written in 1942, this novel depicts a futuristic mid-twenty-first-century technological society in which humans have mastered the forces of nature. Their total control of nature enables humans to live totally divorced from the natural. The food they eat and the air they breathe are manufactured artificially. Women in this unnatural society have a great deal of freedom, pursue higher education, and cultivate careers. Massive catastrophe strikes this society in the year 2052, and forces some of its citizens to flee to Provence, a region that had been left behind by the modern technological advances of the past one hundred years. The few lucky survivors create a true Pétainiste patriarchy in Provence, in which men are all powerful, and women are only allowed to do one thing: rear children. To proffer but one example of the transformation that occurs between societies, the main female character in the novel, Blanche Rouget, takes a typical trajectory, going from successful Parisian career woman to having seventeen children for the provençale society’s patriarch in the post-apocalypse.
Blanche goes from being a major French cinema star, to a smiling old woman who can do nothing more than sit around and sing forgotten nursery rhymes about, no longer existing, trains and automobiles.  Men are better off: if they know their place.   It is fairly clear from the novel that any resistence to the heroic François is viewed as villany, and any violent actions taken by François are justified.

The novel shows a contempt for organized religion, which would have been Catholic in the France of that day, and while not atheistic or obviously pantheistic, religion is not given a huge amount of importance.  In a strange interlude during the "collapse" portion of the novel, the miracles of Christ are treated in a rather clinic and scientific fashion through a mad man who has been given temporary Christ-like powers through the agency of modern science.  That the "Christ" is incapable of bringing people back to life, and falls into a pile of rot when he tries, is indicative of the attitude.
Since we have already coverd much of the early and middle grounds, lets briefly outline the "collapse" portion of our tale.
As noted the book starts with the highly commerical, high-tech society of what was than over 100 years into the future: 2053.  Although France is still a seperate country, the world is ruled through continental blocks of power.  Similar to what was the initial line of reasoning of Germany toward the Jews, the blacks have all been rounded up, including those in Africa, and sent to live in South America.  Understandably resentful, it is they who engineer, through atomic missles, the changes that bring about the complete collapse of this high tech world.  The 1967 translation does not portray the African-South Americans as particularly villaneous, and arguably, aproves of their actions.
The middle portion of the book, the collapse, starts about one-quarter of the way into the novel (page 62 of 215 in my addition).  The novel mixes some very realistic effects - an outbreak of cholera - with some very strange effects.   A strange non-fatal ailment temporarily strikes down virgin women - presumably to have Blanche be completely inefectual as to her own survival early on, and to show that she did not fool around with her previous fianance prior to marriage; François future wife must be pure.  Electricty no longer works in any form, fire arms and internal combustion engines have ceased operations.  As with your typical EMP novel, vehicles are left stranded on the highways.  The other effects are similar to S.M. Stirling's popular, but not particularly scientific Dies the Fire series.
The middle portions remind me of John Christopher's No Blade of Grass written in the 1956.  With the action starting in Paris, the collapse is nasty, and the niceties of society are quickly foregotten.  Both authors appear to be sceptical of the polished venear of modern society, and have no problems tearing the modern world to pieces. With very thin justification, François, our hero, attacks a gardener who is "bugging out" (escaping out) of Paris on one of the few remaining horse and carriage rigs, and steals his rig.  Realizing that the bandit groups are getting too dangerous, François starts his own group of slightly less predatory brigands.  They have an early resource battle with a group of shop keepers who have gone rogue, and kill the tied up survivors with a hatchet.

In an interesting bit of strategy, the  "bug-out" (escape) from Paris is slightly delayed to allow the path to clear some.  Bycycles are used, and they come across some horses from time to time.  Interestingly, the author, who is clearly familiar with horses, views them as needing too much fodder and water, and too limited in their mobility to be an effective means of escape.  They do use horses from time to time, but mostly they wind up as mobile food sources.

Massive fires break out, and oddly enough the devestation is similar to that of a huge incendary nuclear blast. There is no radiation, as the dangers of radiation from atomic weapons would not have been understood, but the travel through the burnt out wilderness causes the loss of many in their group.  Much of this battle, is simply a battle of willpower.

Did I enjoy the novel?  Some of the middle, survival, portions were interesting.  But there was too much fanciful, even by 1943 standards, events to really keep the tension going.  Mostly I would say that it was interesting.  You can almost pretend that this is the science fiction novel Adolf Hitler would have written if he had been French. This is not an entirely new idea, as Norman Spinard's, The Iron Dream, explored the idea that Hitler had emigrated to the United States after World War 1, and had become science fiction writer. 

Rest assuared, no matter what your current political stripe, you are almost sure to find something to dislike about the futuristic utopia that our survivors set up in the last short chapters.  Even a neo-Nazi might pause at the communistic aspects (there is no money) of their farming communes, and when they burn all the books they can lay their hands on (other than poetry - which is thought to be useless), presumably the burned their copies of Mein Kampf as well.

We will finish with our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings:  Realism and Readabilty: numberd 1 to 7.

Realism is intended as how likely the reader can envision themselves, or people they know, within the novel's setting.  Can you picture yourself their?  No.  I  generally don't deduct reality points for an improbable cause of catastrophe, unless it has a continued presense throughout the novel.   In this case it does.  The odd mix of realistic effects (cholera ; suicide) with fanciful (virgins myopia ; Christ-like powers)  strains credibility.  There are issues and discussions about supplies, and the lack of viable skills in a society that has lost power is realistically portrayed, so it is not a complete loss.  But the weighting is toward the bizarre:  It is a 2.

Readability is a not the quality of the language, but literally how difficult it is to read.  It is a pretty easy read.  Although the novel is propoganda, it is very straightforward in its polemics. There is not much in the way of secretive symbolism- at least none needed to follow the narative.   Much of the middle section comes close to being a page turner, and at times the use of language, particularly for a translation, is very good.  It is a non-literay 5.

1 comment:

dedeurs said...

I read this novel in my teens when science fiction was my total craze. This is the first time I read a review on 'Ashes, Ashes'. I agree with yours, but the impression Barjavel made on me is still strong. It was the most gruesome apocalypse story I had read so far. There may be an uneasy mix of realism and far fetched fantasy, the virgin myopia makes little sense, but some chapters are highly impressive. The start of the metropolis fire, the destruction of the Sacre Coeur, the 2050's fashion trend to keep the deceased family members with the offspring in the house, deep frozen and in the poses the sons and daughters were familiar with. With the ending of electric power, these corpses started to thaw...a truly horrifying scene. Then there is the stop at some government site where experiments on people were held, with very creepy results, it really freaked me out. (Both Dracula and Frankenstein never managed that!) And I also haven't forgotten the flight through the countryside and the burning woods - caused by years of European drought - and how Deschamps and his companions survive the flames. Um, wasn't there a scene where they start cannibalizing? It's years since I read it...
But what emphasizes the totality of the disaster ordeal is that when the group of survivors finally arrives in the South of France, they are literally naked. I've had a conservative upbringing, so I was both shocked and fascinated.

But even I as a young boy I was confused by the finale, when Deschamps founds his medieval community. Deschamps stopped being a heroic protagonist, and turned into a harsh patriarch of almost biblical proportions. And yes, Blanche, a superficial bimbo exploited solely for her physical assets, didn't evolve at all- no feminist insights, no spark of independence whatsoever. Just secretly mourning her glitter world and her lost fame.

The only disaster novel that managed to push Ashes Ashes from my #1 scifi spot was Stephen King's 'The Stand'. Perhaps also not free from faults (the Finger of God? Come on), but boy, what a READ. Yet I still have a weak spot for Barjavel's book. Even if he was no J.G Ballard.
By the way, Ashes Ashes is a much better title than Ravage, And because the description of life in Paris prior to the apocalyps, I thought the book was written around somewhere in the Sixties, the Studio has elements of typical futurized 1960s pop culture. So I was quite surprised that the novel originates from 1943. Oldie Barjavel certainly had a rich imagination.
And I think it's in two ways a dystopia. I love dystopias!