Praise for MALBOIRE - Appuyez sur la touche lecture

This time, we’ll be discussing a post-apocalyptic novel clearly labelled as such. It’s published by an editor specialising in the imaginary and unmistakeably asserts its affiliation with science fiction. And yet, between Moi, Marthe et les autres (Me, Martha and the others), by Antoine Wauters, previously mentioned, and our novel of the day Malboire, by Camille LeBoulanger (published in large format by L’Atalante), there aren’t such clear formal differences. On the contrary, I think that these two books are quite similar, particularly in the messages directed at the reader. All the same in Malboire there is a fairly open attack on several big transnational companies in the agri-food industry. But not only that, because in the dock there are other parties responsible for the ills that are afflicting us: humanity itself whose propensity to act like a monster is not the least of the worries he (Zizare) has to face...

First of all he is part of Those in the Mud. Earth-eaters, as they are scornfully named. Human beings? The question can be asked, since their behaviour seems irrational and disturbing. As if they were made of mud and not just flesh and blood. Creatures that are hardly social beings and one wonders if they do actually possess a form of intelligence...

So many questions that will have answers when someone pulls him out of the mud, cleans off this all-enveloping, suffocating clay (and that’ll take some time), when he gives him back the appearance of a human being and puts him on the right track. The “someone” in question is Arsen, a strange character indeed, a madman, so they say...

As for the person he’s pulled out of the mud, he’s a blank slate. Paradoxically, when he’s rid of the clay in which he was... born, it’s time to shape him, teach him about the world and life, express himself, feed himself and work. For the moment a few essential ideas that can’t be shared with him yet will have to be left till later.

He, who left Those in the Mud, who will soon be called Zizare, who is the narrator of the story and also the central character, is like a baby in an adult’s body. A blank hard drive that now must be filled with information. And the information he receives from Arsen is quite enough to upset this still fragile being.

Before developing these ideas, we have to talk about the world this story takes place in. Without any doubt, it’s ours. Well, what was ours. For it’s really suffered and hardly resembles what it was like in the Old Times, before the disaster. This catastrophe, that left the Earth irreversibly polluted, is not clearly defined,

The Earth, which we sought to make more fertile by all the scientific and technological means available, has in fact been poisoned, along with everything it has produced. The worst thing is the water. Apart from what falls from the sky, it’s no longer fit to drink, to such an extent that it has a new name: Malboire.

In this world in brutal regression, many things from the past and how the world functions have been lost. For most of the survivors, not Those in the Mud, who are hardly in a state to think, but for the others, there’s only Malboire and its alternative, the water falling from the sky, that must be saved so it can be drunk very sparingly.

The same goes for food, and eventually for practically everything to do with nature, devastated by the action of human beings. And the survivors appear resigned to living like this, with no hope of improving their situation, keeping a weather eye out for infrequent showers and fearing the Malboire, whose ingestion leads to sickness and death.

But Arsen refuses to give up, that’s why everyone thinks he’s mad. Because he thinks that there’s water under the Malboire layer. Drinking water, a vital resource that will change the daily living conditions of the survivors and also let them envisage the possibility of starting again at the point where everything fell in ruins. And trying not to make the same mistakes again.

Arsen knows. He’s already done it elsewhere: you have to dig sufficiently deep into the ground for water unlike Malboire to spring up. And when he pulled Zizare out of the mud, he had just arrived in this region to try out a new experiment. He is carrying an infinitely precious treasure on him: plans for a drilling machine. Never will he let them out of his sight.

But the task is impossible alone. That’s why he pulled the young man out of the mud: to train him and for him to become his assistant. And despite Zizare’s ignorance, his naivety, his suspicion, his difficulties in learning and expressing himself and in living in society, Zizare accepts his redeemer’s challenge. Although he trusts this man, he’s the first one to be amazed when he succeeds...

Water... Water pumped from under the ground, and not just falling from the sky! Water you can drink, you can cook and wash with! Obviously you mustn’t waste it, for who knows if this unhoped for source won’t dry up some day. Water that can be shared with others nearby, with Wassingue, for example, in spite of the aggressiveness of the inhabitants and the way they rejected Arsen...

That’s where Zizare meets Mivoix, so called because she hardly speaks a word. And watch out if she does talk, because heart-felt truths will come pouring out! Mivoix, who Zizare immediately falls in love with - although this word “love” doesn’t mean much to him. Mivoix, the person he takes with him and lives with.

Zizare’s new life definitively takes shape with this experience of living together with Mivoix. But it changes even more when a strange traveller, passing through, tells of the existence of an immense stretch of water that has nothing in common with Malboire, either in expanse or quality.

Water, which it seems, is held back by a mysterious edifice - he called that a dam. All this suddenly excites Zizare’s growing imagination, still in the course of development. Arsen seems much more circumspect, but when his young disciple announces that he wants to see this dam and all the water behind it, his mentor lets him go. With Mivoix, of course.

So starts a journey through a world that Zizare knows nothing of. And he’s not alone... A world in which water, not Malboire, is a blessing and almost divine, or perceived as such. A world even more violent than that of the insulting and aggressive inhabitants of Wassingue. A world full of wonders for the naive young narrator...

Oh no! I’ve gone on too long again in my presentation of this book and setting the scene! But, don’t worry, I’ve left out plenty of unexpected elements of surprise that take you to a really stunning final discovery. Yes, after Wassingue, Zizare and Mivoix still have a long road to travel, many dangers to face and revelations to adjust to...

As I read the book, I said to myself that there’s a bit of Candide in Zizare. And then as I carried on, I got the impression that he was a negative of Voltaire’s character. First, because even for Leibniz, the world portrayed at the beginning of Camille Leboulanger’s novel is anything but the best of all possible worlds.

In fact, on the contrary, it is the worst of all possible worlds. If I dared to, I’d say that it’s an apocalyptic world almost in the biblical sense of the term, because it’s as if the Four Horsemen had devastated it so conscientiously to the extent of making it uninhabitable. Conquest, Famine, Pestilence, War, they’re all there, some have already accomplished their work, others are in the midst of their labours and there’s more to come...

Conquest is obvious; the human race has done that to the planet and made of it a place to be exploited till there is nothing left. Regarding this, a name comes up regularly, without any real significance for Zizare or hardly more than for the other survivors, but all the same symbolising both the grandeur of the Old Times and the harm they caused: Floréal.

Floréal doesn’t exist anymore; doubtless this... entity may have been destroyed at the same time as everything else in society. But vestiges remain, inert and sometimes disturbing, and not only because we’ve forgotten what these relics were used for... And the consequences of its activities are still spoiling the existence of human beings, with the main avatar being Malboire.

Pestilence and Famine (here I’m cheating a little, for rather than hunger, thirst is the threat) are the direct corollaries of my previous explanation. Life expectancy is very limited in the world of Malboire. The brave, or the foolish, not heeding others’ warnings and yielding to the need to quench their thirst, are a terrifying proof of this...

As for War... Well, you’ll see...

I’m digressing, I was with Candide... Yes, Zizare has something of Voltaire’s character about him with his ingenuous and simplistic view on the world. But for the rest, everything happens just about in reverse order of the 18th century philosophical tale: Arsen is much more benevolent to his pupil than is Pangloss. He is also a lot more realistic on the state of the world and seeks to improve it for better or for worse.

Arsen doesn’t send away Zizare and push him out on to the road; it’s the young man himself who decides to launch out on this immense journey of initiation towards the dam. Lastly, Mivoix really doesn’t resemble Candide’s gentle Cunégonde. And their loving and sensual relationship is not an object of condemnation and doesn’t lead to their terrible separation.

So the young couple set out on a journey together, Mivoix playing the role of moderator to the very enthusiastic Zizare, who is ready for anything, in his profoundly innocent way. He wants to understand and absorb into his being this charm-filled world as he discovers it. Mivoix, being less of a hothead, is more pragmatic and much more wary. And will Zizare take notice of her advice?

Mivoix’s character is splendid, touching in her seeming fragility, her stubborn silence and her vital strength which she always uses astutely. That doesn’t guarantee a journey with no hitches nor shocks, far from it, but the young woman is in a certain way, Arsen’s link with Zizare, the person who will show him life, not only in theory but in practice.

But, thinking again about Zizare, another comparison has come to mind, doubtless inspired by the opening scene of Malboire, our first encounter with the young man in the middle of Those in the Mud. There is something of a Golem about this young man, newly born from the clay, who progressively fills the gaps in his knowledge during this journey towards the unknown...

This particular Golem didn’t have four sages at his bedside. Arsen’s science and Mivoix’s pragmatism watched over his first steps. But the comparison, which can appear quite unexpected to start with, goes further: on the forehead of the Golem, Jewish tradition demands that the word “emet” – “truth”, be written, which becomes, on removing the first e, “met” – “death”.

So, the journey that Zizare embarks on, having no idea where he’s going, is exactly that: truth or death, the second not excluding the first, moreover. Malboire is a post- apocalyptic novel, but it doesn’t neglect the instructive side of the genre. The discoveries of Zizare will lead to major revelations (revelation, one of the meanings of the word apocalypse, well, well...).

I mentioned in the introduction to this post, my previous read, Antoine Wauters’ novella, Moi, Marthe et les autres, because I think there’s quite a lot in common between the two narratives. The first is that the apocalypse was the consequence of human activities. In the Wauters book, it is, however, a social question, but in Camille Leboulanger’s, the message is clearly ecological.

To develop this further, I’d have to reveal much more of the plot, which is, of course, not possible here. But, I must say that Camille Leboulanger runs a tight ship, and not only because he has organised plenty of surprises for his readers. Without becoming excessive, his message is clear and accurate, simply with observations coming from the Old Times. Our era, then.

However, his reasoning is not simplistic (boo, nasty Monsanto, Nestlé and the rest). He doesn’t just criticise capitalism, industrialists and the never-ending quest for more money and power. No, the author also puts ordinary mortals in the hot seat and all of humanity, taken collectively, but also individually.

So there you go, the human race is responsible for what’s happening to it, and so it has to change to avoid the catastrophe that we are told is now inevitable. And all that, because there is something in human beings which (naturally?) urges them to carry out monstrous acts... Ah, the most loyal readers of this blog suddenly spot a recurring theme, often dealt with here...

“And if Malboire wasn’t the root of all our problems? And if it wasn’t what made humans stupid? And what if we didn’t need a curse or giant Floréal’s ruinous hand for us to act like monsters?” says Zizare. “Who are the real monsters?” he wonders a little later.

During his odyssey, gentle Zizare sees his peers acting very badly and forgetting they are all in the same boat, no one being able escape without the rest. Even the welcome received by Arsen from the inhabitants of the Wassingue region follows the same pattern: suspicion instead of trust, rejection of the foreigner, rejection based on unreasonableness rather than experimentation.

Don’t worry, it gets much worse later! It’s chilling right to the conclusion. Because the instincts of our magnificent human race have a decidedly unpleasant tendency to drive us straight into a brick wall, to divide and rule and to seek profit (financial or otherwise) with no thought for any downside. And there’s no hesitation about riding roughshod over the next person to get it...

So then, can there be a life after the mud? To get an answer (or the beginnings of an answer), read Camille Leboulanger’s Malboire, with its completely unexpected conclusion. Dive (well, perhaps not too deeply - it could be dangerous) into the world created by this young novelist, still only in his twenties. After his ventures into writing fantasy, Leboulanger has returned to his first love: the post-apocalyptic narrative.

His domain is the natural world, which has suffered from the consequences of human activities in the Old Times. There is something frightening about it, particularly the tide of mud Zizare is mired in when we first encounter him, and ultimately something bucolic. We travel though changing scenes that offer us a palette of very different landscapes.

Still with this question of water that is central to the novel and which gives rise to several darkly amusing and poetic excursions. Yes, it’s an initiation quest - a rather unusual coming-of-age novel where the main character is led to discover fascinating new things. Except that increasingly often during the journey, sadness and anxiety overcome amazement.

And then there is this idea of madness, evoked in this post’s title. It isn’t the contrary of reason, but more of general resignation. Arsen is the madman, because he works off the beaten track, away from daily life and certitudes. Because he believes in something else, something better. And this is what he instils into Zizare.

And Zizare runs with it: he’ll be mad too! He won’t sit around waiting for death, whether it be from Malboire, another epidemic, or whatever bug is lying around in this toxic world. No, he’ll devote his life to widening his horizons, to discovering a world damaged to the point of being loathsome, but perhaps not in a totally irremediable way.

Zizare doesn’t initiate a call to arms, but rather an encouragement to commit oneself to getting things moving, to helping develop mind-sets and beings. Zizare is a thorn in the side, spoilsport, an atom smasher, a stirrer-up of hornets’ nests. In short it’s time to stop being resigned, but to take things in hand.

I’ll conclude with a strangely balanced impression: Is Malboire an optimistic or pessimistic novel? You could conclude by saying it’s for the reader to decide, a little like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (yes, that book again!), but I think it’s more complicated than that. In fact, it’s not the end, we’re at the crossroads and it’s for us humans, to make the right choices.

Us - you know, those that have the unpleasant tendency to act like monsters...

Appuyez sur la touche lecture, Joyeux Drille, 11 October 2018

Published at April 18, 2019