Posts Tagged ‘thoughtcrime’

Nicole Avril: Les Gens de Misar

June 14, 2021

     After 45 years I’ve returned to one of the strangest novels I know; it was recommended to me all those years ago by one of my students while I was an English language assistant in France. There are echoes of so many other writers and classic novels of the twentieth century that I still can’t decide whether it has an originality of its own or is merely derivative.

A Frenchman, a university lecturer, accepts a posting to a country that has deliberately cut itself off completely from the world for the past thirty years. It seems that partly he is fleeing an unsuccessful love affair, and wants to be away from all that’s familiar. He has studied the language and history of the desert nation and its capital city, Misar, though.

Misar is a rigidly organised and conformist society, applying its laws, which everyone knows, very strictly. He accepts and goes along with this. Great poverty as well as great privilege is evident in a stratified class system; he is part of the privileged elite. He observes and reports, giving the clear impression of being out of place; what he sees seems to jar but he can do nothing, and even to ask questions is not acceptable. The weirdness of the city was reminiscent of China Mieville’s excellent thriller The City and The City. I felt distinct echoes of Kafka here. At this stage he is a passive entity: when the sister of his university colleague appears in his bed offering her sexual services he accepts and performs; this becomes a regular occurrence and a real relationship – of a kind – develops between them. But all is never what is seems.

Gradually he learns more of the way the state functions; law is enforced by ritual public stranglings, and it transpires that the current appointed executioner is the older sister of his lover. This uneasy and unnerving implication with the forces of death reminded me of Jill Paton Walsh’s weird Knowledge of Angels, as well as Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Oeuvre au Noir. And there is a strangle kind of licence permitted in the mysterious public gardens, which again are more than they seem. Here is a world where all is fine as long as you abide by the rules, which everyone knows. Shades of Huxley’s Brave New World, rather than Orwell here, I thought. And yet, our hero seems to be committing thoughtcrime, in wanting information about matters he ought not to be concerning himself with: the dangers of curiosity in a totalitarian state.

Misar regards itself as a haven from the rest of the world which is chaos, and is biding its time, unaware that the rest of the planet has just forgotten about it. Danger rears its head when having watched an execution to which he was invited, it’s made clear he’s now regarded as ‘initiated’ – one of them. And there seem to be people in Misar who are aware of the stasis, entropy even, into which the place has fallen, and hope that the outside may be able to do something to break the cycle when he returns home.

His fascination with the executioner leads him to uncover the secret from which he has been warned away, and the inexorable system into which he has been accepted means that he must die…

It’s an unnerving read, a compulsive read and one which makes a number of allegorical interpretations available at different stages. At the moment, I really can’t decide how original or how good it is. And in another 45 years, it will not matter. I have not discovered an English translation of the novel.

%d bloggers like this: