Review: The Good Leviathan by Pierre Boulle

This is part of a series on French author Pierre Boulle.

Julliard, 1977

translated by Margaret Giovanelli

Vanguard Press, 1978

204 pages



Pierre Boulle published The Great Leviathan, the story of a massive, nuclear-powered oil tanker, eight years after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, in which over three million gallons of oil were released into the waters off California’s coast. One year later, America held its first Earth Day, which is now celebrated every April around the world.

Boulle’s story about the trials and tribulations of the oil tanker, officially named Gargantua, is the very opposite of what you might assume, given the above paragraph. You might be thinking that, clearly, Boulle wrote about how the wonders of nuclear power and the world’s growing dependence on oil are actually recipes for catastrophe.

This is Pierre Boulle we’re talking about, though, so you’d be completely wrong. Following the massive 1969 oil spill and the 1973 oil crisis, France turned to nuclear energy, imagining a grand plan for supplying most of the country’s electricity through nuclear power. Though France fell short of its goal, it did open many nuclear reactors that still supply most of the power to the nation.

Enter Boulle’s 1977 novel and the ship Gargantua, a nuclear-powered, twelve-hundred-foot long tanker capable of carrying six hundred thousand tons of oil. In the face of this threatening monster, we find the ecologists, fishermen, and regular citizens of France losing their shit. Nonetheless, Madame Bach, a shipwoner’s widow and current president of the company that built Gargantua, follows through on her plans, securing a steadfast captain (Müller), an atomic-physicist-turned-industrial-engineer (Monsier David), a highly capable chief engineer (Guillaume), and a publicist (Monsieur Maurelle) to help her turn a profit. The engineers and publicist employ scientists and lab workers to confirm, multiple times, that the tanker is safe and won’t leak nuclear radiation or oil except in the case of an unlikely disaster. Despite the studies and tests, Gargantua is viewed as a monstrous, radiation-spewing creature from hell (thus it is dubbed “Leviathan”).

The launch of Gargantua brings to a head the brewing fight between ecologists and the shipping company. Led by a woman known only as “the Cripple” and a science professor named Havard, the ecologists’ camp holds a series of protests, which culminate in a dicey situation that greets the ship’s return after it’s first voyage. As Gargantua approaches the port, its sworn enemies surround it in small boats and attempt to board the giant, perhaps with plans to sabotage it. Eager to fight off the protesters but insisting on nonviolent measures, Captain Müller decides to spray the trespassers with water from the bowels of the tanker. He succeeds, but then something bizarre happens. The “Cripple,” who received a blast of water, suddenly straightens up, her entire body transforming into a healthy one, which had been twisted from her years working in a factory. Everyone in the area freezes when they see this, and I think you can guess what happens next.

Gargantua instantly turns into a quasi-religious shrine. People start going on pilgrimages to the ship to sample the “miraculous” water and heal themselves. A man who’s been going blind for years rubs tanker water on his eyes and can suddenly see perfectly well. Captain Müller flies into a rage, denouncing those who talk about the water’s miraculous properties, pointing out that it’s just plain old water. Some suggest that maybe the water’s interaction with the radiation gave it special properties, but Müller reiterates that the water and the propulsion system are completely separate. Madame Bach, along with Monsieurs David and Maurelle, share the captain’s skepticism but, unlike Müller, think about how to take advantage of the fishermen and ecologists’ newfound devotion to the tanker.

Pilgrimages to Gargantua continue while the ship is in port undergoing minor repairs, resulting in a makeshift town. The healthy and the sick all come to be near the seemingly-miraculous water, and now the captain has a new problem. Instead of trying to fight off saboteurs, he must shake off ardent pilgrims, who might get themselves killed trying to sneak onto the tanker. Everyone involved in the enterprise knows that the slightest bad publicity could spell disaster, so extra steps are taken to secure the ship. Eventually, the ship shifts from being just an oil tanker to being both a tanker and, when it’s in port, a source of power for the growing settlement, which Madame Bach subsidizes and turns into a clean, well-developed town.

As with his other speculative novels and stories, Boulle uses a single idea to raise questions about a major polarizing issue of the day; in this case, the clash of modern technology and spiritual belief. Referring multiple times to the real-life French Jesuit priest, scientist, and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who often blended science and Christianity, the physicist Monsieur David imagines an intoxicating comingling of ideas about God and the evolution of the universe. As he notes in a televised interview when discussing whether or not the tanker water produced a “miracle,” “It is a question…of the adoption of the uncertainty principle, which most men of science accept today” (95). Quoting then from Sir Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World (1928), David explains that “ ‘a serious consequence of the abandonment of the principle of causality is that it leaves us without a clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural.’” Thus as theoretical physics moves away from testable hypotheses, the physical nature of our world becomes, once again, inscrutable. David, though, sees this as the next step in humanity’s understanding of the universe.

Furthermore, as in Desperate Games, Boulle explores human nature when people act en masse. As David and Maurelle explain to their boss, Madame Bach, just a single miraculous occurrence will engender others, simply by the power of suggestion. The world’s wholesale shift from hatred to adoration of Gargantua suggests what many who study crowds have known: that nuance and analysis are lost when a crowd forms. Hope, companionship, and the desire to fit in drive human nature. Even the former avowed enemy of the tanker wanted, deep down, to be powerful and recognized by others for her intelligence. Her crusade against Gargantua, the narrator explains, was just a vehicle for that deeper desire.

Even more interesting is Boulle’s point about the ways in which dangerous obsessions lead to the very disasters that people wish to avoid. Even after the tanker “miracles,” Professor Havard despises Gargantua, and from so many years of warning the world that nuclear power and oil will destroy the Earth and all of its inhabitants, he almost comes to wish that something terrible would happen (even if he has to make it happen himself), just to be able to tell the world he told it so. Boulle silences even Havard when the tanker, rather than taking life, actually saves several thousand lives during a storm by releasing oil into the ocean and calming the violent waves.

Now, you might read this and conclude that The Good Leviathan sounds like the silliest of novels. Nuclear-powered oil tankers saving the world and curing illnesses? I admit that the premise is pretty out there, but I’d also suggest that we see that as Boulle’s point. What, in the 1970s especially, would have caused some pretty intense outrage around the world? That’s right: a radiation-spewing, ocean-polluting tanker built and run by a money-grubbing industrialist that would destroy the environment. Boulle used this issue, which generated both then and now some pretty intense emotions, to reveal the complex motivations and desires that drive people to support or oppose major initiatives. How do we sort ourselves politically, intellectually, and spiritually when it comes to problems that we all face together? How might we react when we join a movement or when we become frustrated with a lack of recognition for our efforts to make the world a better place?

Boulle used questions raised by Gargantua as a vehicle for social commentary and for a deeper understanding of human nature.

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