Saturday, February 09, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (III)

Much of La belle saison, the third part of Roger Martin du Gard's massive novel Les Thibaults, centers around the relationship between Antoine Thibault, a young physician, and Rachel, a young woman he has met while performing emergency surgery on an accident victim. Beautiful, intelligent, independent, and sexually uninhibited, Rachel seems like the ideal match for Antoine, who has previously satisfied himself with casual affairs with prostitutes. Rachel has had other lovers — a fact that doesn't disturb Antoine unduly — and one of them is a man named Hirsch, a shadowy character who spends most of his time in Africa. It is in relating her adventures with Hirsch that we — and Antoine — begin to discover her less admirable qualities.

Rachel has already told one appalling story of her time in Africa, about a woman who was buried alive with stones as punishment for bigamy. (Rachel, who had absented herself from the scene, reports that Hirsch, who had witnessed it, assured her that he did not participate.) One night, while she and Antoine are watching a documentary about the continent, she relates another incident, equally horrifying. During a hunting outing with Hirsch, she shoots an egret, which falls on the far shore of a river. Hirsch's "boy" (the word is in English in the original) is dispatched to swim across and retrieve it; while swimming, an unnamed animal (probably a crocodile) seizes him from below.
Hirsch was wonderful in that kind of situation. He realized, instantly, that the boy was lost, that he was going to suffer horribly: he put his gun to his shoulder, and pow! the child's head exploded like a gourd. It was better that way, no?
The next day, a porter is sent across for the egret, "and he had better luck than the boy." The bird is made into a hat, which she continues to own.

She enthuses over the unrestrained liberty — especially sexual liberty — that Europeans enjoy in their colonies:
In France, you see, we're stifled. One can only live free down there! If you only knew! The freedom of the whites in the midst of the blacks! Here, we have no idea what it's like, that freedom! No rules, no controls! You don't even have to fear the judgment of others! Do you get it? Can you possibly comprehend that? You have the right to be yourself, everywhere and all the time. You're as free in front of all those blacks as you are in front of your dog. And at the same time, you find yourself in the midst of these delicious beings, full of tact and nuances of which you have no idea. Around you, nothing but young, happy smiles, ardent eyes that divine your least desire...
She relates how she and Hirsch admired, without comment, two "fillettes délicieuses" belonging to a local caïd, and how the girls later appeared, unbidden, in their tent at night. "I tell you," she repeats, savoring it in her memory, "your least desire..."
You don't even have to make a signal. Your gaze rests on of one of those smooth faces, your eyes meet for an instant ... that's all, That's enough.
These disturbing episodes — and it seems clear that Martin du Gard intended them to be disturbing — offer a sharp critique of the moral status of European colonialism at a time when it was still in full flower. They also, perhaps, implicitly offer a bit of a rebuke to Martin du Gard's great friend Gide, who had described, in L'Immoraliste, exactly the kind of personal liberation by means of sexual tourism that Rachel celebrates so effusively.

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