Monday, March 25, 2013

The Other Side of the Mountain -- Michel Bernanos



Title: La Montagne Morte de la Vie (The Other Side of The Mountain) 
Author:  Michel Bernanos (translation by Gio Clairval) 
Publishing Information: Included in The Weird, a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, published in the United States by Tor of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, New York (2012), and in Great Britain by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltc., London (2011) [n.b. An older version of this work, translated by Elaine P. Halperin, can be found in a standalone volume published by Norman S. Berg by arrangement with Houghton Mifflin Co., Dunwoody, GA (1973)] 
Source: Currently available through any seller of new books [for the Norm S. Berg version, which is no longer in print, try finding it at www.abebooks.com or any other used book source]

Short Bio: (January 20, 1923 – July 27, 1964) Michel Bernanos was born in France, the fourth of six children of George Bernanos, a Catholic writer and critic of bourgeois French politics, and Jeanne Talbert d’Arc, a direct descendant of the brother of Joan d’Arc (Joan of Arc).  After a brief flirtation with the fascist Franco regime in Spain, George moved his family to Brazil in 1938 to escape the deterioration of the Europe.  Michel, then in his teens, spent his time working on the family farm, penning his first poem at the age of fifteen.  In 1942 he moved to London where he joined the France Libre resistance fighters and then a submarine unit, in which he served until the end of World War II. Even though his parents moved back to France after the war, Michel decided to return to Brazil (1946) to run a rubber plantation.  In 1948, after the death of his father, he moved to Chantilly, a suburb of Paris, where he lived with his wife and daughter until one day in 1964 when he suddenly disappeared.  He was found dead three days later in the forest at Fontainebleau, a victim of suicide. During his lifetime, he wrote numerous crime and fantastical stories under the pen-names of Michel Talbert and Michel Drowin, purportedly using pseudonyms so as not to ride the coattails of his father. All of his works were published during his lifetime, with the noted exception of The Other Side of the Mountain (first published in France in 1967) and some of his other fantastical fiction. Unfortunately, this was all I could find out about him online, at least that was written in English. Per the Wikipedia article I read, there is one biography on him written by Salsa Bertin called Michel Bernanos, l’Insurgé (Michel Bernanos, The Insurgent), but, alas, it is in French and I am not blessed with the skill to read that language.  If you are and have read it, I would very much like to hear your opinions on it – to see if it provides more details to flesh out this mysterious and conflicted man’s life.

Comments on the Story: [Spoiler Alert] 
The Other Side of the Mountain, is the third installment in a tetralogy consisting of Le Murmure des Dieux (The Murmur of the Gods), L’Enverse de l’Eperon (The Back of the Sporn), La Montagne Morte de la Vie (The Other Side of the Mountain), and Ils ont Déchiré Son Image (They Have Destroyed His Image), and, as far as I could find, is Michel Bernanos’ only story translated into English. Hopefully someday an ambitious translator will rectify this situation, but until then, if you do not have a command of the French language, you can at least enjoy this gem of Michel Bernanos’ genius.

This story is broken into two distinct sections – the first a sea adventure and the second a divergence into the weird. Though they tie together perfectly, in my opinion, I found in my research that some people felt they couldn’t get past Part One. I have to suppose that this was in no small part due to an expectation they might have had as to what the weird genre should deliver. Though written well, if you anticipate jumping into something like George McDonald’s Phantastes right from the first paragraph, the opening of this story certainly isn’t going to deliver. However, if you press on and read the novella in its entirety, I feel certain that you will find that the dichotomy created by the juxtaposition of something cut out of reality set next to the absurd can actually heighten the impact of the latter. However, for someone who may already have been turned off by their initial reading of the story, it might be hard for them to go back and give it a second try.  To this I hope some will reconsider. In an effort to assist those who may be on the fence, I am going to give a brief synopsis of Part One so that they can simply jump to Part Two and see if their opinions change. As such, for anyone who has not yet had the opportunity to read any of the story, consider this a spoiler alert.

The story opens with an unnamed young man of eighteen, whilst drunk one night, rashly signing up to be a ship’s boy.  The next morning, to his dismay, he awakens to find himself aboard a galleon bound for Peru.  Greeted by a kick to the ribs and a command to go see the cook, he attempts to obey, however, reacting too slowly for his tormentor, he soon finds himself the object of a terrible hazing. Restrained by members of the crew, he watches as a rope is dropped over the prow of the ship and dragged backwards until it straddles the hull with both ends draped over the deck. Another rope is then tied around his waist and he is forced to suffer the agony of being slowly lowered over the side of the ship until fully submerged in the water. But his torture doesn’t stop there. His descent continues in painful increments until he finds himself suspended  at the very nadir of the hull.  His last memory before passing out is of the deep dark ocean stretching out endlessly beneath him.

As the story progresses we find our narrator in the company of the ship’s cook, Toine. An old veteran of the sea, he shows the boy the ropes and soon our narrator is able to make his own way without further harassment from the crew. Things start to look up for our narrator and we are graced with absolutely beautiful descriptions of the sea and the sky as the days pass endlessly by. But what kind of sea story would this be if there wasn’t more conflict?  Well, just as the vessel reaches equatorial waters, a dead calm besets it, a calm that stretches on for days, then weeks, then months.  The food rots, the potable water runs out and the crew suffers the agonies of starvation – rotting teeth, scurvy, bloated bellies.  Toine and the narrator survive by eating flour that the wily cook had hidden in the galley, secretly filling their stomachs while their minds struggle with the conflicting emotions of feeling shame for their deception and understanding that the rest of the crew would do no different given the opportunity. When it seems their circumstances can get no worse, a horrific storm arises, sucking the ship into a maelstrom. Chaos ensues as the crew fight one another for the life boats, but to no avail. Every man is thrown into the sea except for Toine and the boy, who manage to strap themselves to the mainmast after it is ripped from the deck. Exhausted and beyond hope, our narrator passes out – his fate in the hands of nature.

An unknown amount of time later we find our two characters afloat in an ocean the color of blood overseen by a crimson sun which surmounts a brick colored sky. Soon they are surrounded by massive sea creatures who undulate through the water and, as the sun sets, glow with an eerie phosphorescence. Our narrator describes the situation as follows:

“Something malefic hovered in the air, without a name but palpable. A dimensionless cavern was swallowing me alive, its vaults riddled with shining worms vitrified in death by their own lights.” (page 388)

But the creatures leave them undisturbed and night passes into day. The water begins to lose its salinity, and our characters drink their fill then kill and eat an octopus. But their greatest salvation comes when they spot land.

Here starts Part Two of the story – the part that makes this tale so unusual and mystifying. The pair is washed ashore on a beach of red sand and make their way inland to look for food and shelter. What they find is viscerally disturbing, presented in incremental snippets so well plotted that you are irresistibly drawn forward in the story. As far as they can tell, they are alone, or at least seemingly so.  Everywhere they find signs of human life – pottery, tools, shelters and most strange of all, perfectly carved statues of people – but not one single living soul. They push on through the endlessly red days, discovering forests full of carnivorous plants that seem to have the power of locomotion, even of cognition, seeking out the mysteries of the island and finding at its source an indomitable mountain range which contains horrors beyond their imagination.

This story runs on so many levels, it will probably strike every reader in a completely different way.  Man versus nature. A devolution into madness. The hallucinatory last gasp for life of two dying men. It even has the fairy elements of entering the world of the Fae and finding you are trapped there once you unwittingly eat their food. If it weren’t for the poetic nature of the writing, which leaves the reader with a deeper sense of meaning within every word, these simple plot devices might suffice, but ultimately they do not. If you want to partake of your own endless journey, read this fantastic story and you will find yourself thinking about it for years to come – constantly twisting your thoughts around to find fresh meanings in each lovely and memorable image.

As a final note, I read both English translations that I cited in the publication information above, and though I found Elaine P. Halperin’s to be more than sufficient to convey the beauty of this story, the new translation by Gio Clairval seems to me to have captured more of the poetic feeling of the words. If you have read the original French text as well as either of these English translations, I would be delighted to hear your comments on what you think of their comparison. 

Additional Information: 
Though both English versions of this story translated the title as “the other side of the mountain”, to me the literal translation (“the mountain of death from life”) imparts more clearly the metaphorical feeling of the story itself – that the mountain, which dominates the island upon which our protagonists are shipwrecked, has literally gained anthropomorphic life by causing death.

Sources for Short Bio: 
The first two articles are exceptionally well written comments on the story and well worth reading. 




2 comments:

  1. Perhaps some people find it hard to read the second half of the book because they weren't expecting weird after the ordinary. At any rate, it's too bad more of the author's works haven't been translated into English -- and even more tragic that the author ended his own life. One will always be left wondering what else he might have accomplished.

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  2. This posting has had over 370 views since uploaded. I'm thrilled!!

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