This is part of a series on French author Pierre Boulle.
translated by Margaret Giovanelli
Vanguard Press, 1977
The original title for this collection was Histoires perfides, which literally means “false or treacherous stories.” Personally, I like the English title because it is mellifluous (the very reason why the phrase was chosen as the name for the prison in the eponymous story). Nonetheless, the original French title tells us at the outset what we should expect to find within these pages. And boy does good ol’ Pierre deliver.
Each of these six stories is told to the narrator by an old man from the fictional “Kingdom of Shandong,” which we’re told lies somewhere in the Himalayas. Given that Boulle spent many years in the Near East on rubber plantations and then as a spy for the French resistance during World War II, it’s likely that he drew on stories he heard there for some of these “false” tales. You might also call them fantastical tales or fables.
“False” works on a number of levels in this collection. First, the narrator tells us that he deliberately seeks out this centenarian storyteller in order to inspire that narrator in his writing career. The images of princesses and ornate penitentiaries, obscure religious practices and strange transformations, help the narrator break out of his writer’s block. Second, the narrator constantly winks at the reader with asides about how some of these stories must be tall tales or at least stretched almost to the breaking point. Indeed, the narrator knows that the storyteller knows that the narrator knows that these stories might be completely made up. Still with me? Good.
Thus this is a collection of stories about stories and how they’re told. It could have been called “The Meta-lous Palace” (yeah I know. That was terrible). If you’ve read Boulle before, you’ll recognize his signature style in the very first tale, “The Royal Pardon.” Here, we learn about the Queen of Shandong who, it was reputed, was fair and tended to pardon convicts if the evidence against them wasn’t solid. In characteristic Boulle fashion, though, expectations are upended when the Queen decides to go through with one particular execution that everyone believed she would stay. Turns out that her son needed a new heart, and the man who was to be executed would provide a much-needed replacement. This man is pardoned at the last minute, though, because another heart is found in a body that just happened to be found near the house of the mother whose son was to be executed. Is Boulle saying she had something to do with a scheme to spare her son? Perhaps. Cue Boulle wink-wink-nudge-nudge here.
The eponymous story, though, is also the best of the collection (to my mind). It’s here that Boulle’s narrator introduces the “cult of Doubt”–the storyteller’s religion and employer, since he is a “lay priest.” This cult comes up throughout the rest of the collection and stands as an interesting counterpoint to real-world religions, where belief, more than doubt, is encouraged. But back to the story. The “marvelous palace” is the euphemism that the ministers of the Kingdom of Shandong land on for the planned penitentiary and execution space that they hope will become a tourist attraction. And here comes Boulle to tell us why this major project will fail; as the old man explains,
When men of energy are stirred by creative passion, the always carry to a happy conclusion the task they’ve set themselves, no matter how arduous and difficult; they triumph over every obstacle and refuse to be discouraged by the criticism leveled against them…[But] once they’ve attained their ultimate aim, the work brought to a close by virtue of their intelligence, their labor, their desperate drive, is revealed to be useless and derisory because one little detail has escaped their genius. (37)
This palace, you guys…it’s gonna be HUGE. Literally and figuratively. Jewels, dancers, gardens. It’s like a spa but then you’re executed so…not so much like a spa, really. Why do the ministers of Shandong come up with a plan to build this “palace”? It started with the Minister of Statistics who, looking at his graphs and charts, saw that murders had tripled over the past few years. And so, as people have done since statistics were invented, this minister showed the other ministers that, according to projections, murders would get so out of hand that the entire country would be killing itself out of existence in the not-too-distant future. Thus, another Boulle-ism: don’t take one data point and use it to make sweeping changes and plans that might be completely useless or even dangerous. This palace is ultimately built and just before opening day everyone suddenly remembers that…the King recently outlawed capital punishment. Next thing you know, the “palace” is like those stadiums built for the Olympic games that decay and turn into modern-day ruins after the games are over.
The rest of the stories follow a similar course: laws and actions taken to their logical conclusions start to seem monstrous or dangerous, though they seemed perfectly fine at first. The final story of the collection, “The Angelic Monsier Edyh,” is no different. In a take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a conscientious scientist makes a potion that can turn him into a saintly man. You’d think it would be great, but it really, really isn’t. Each time the angelic “Mr. Edyh” emerges, he rushes around trying to make everyone happier, and in turn makes other people miserable (including the man whose body he inhabits). As the storyteller explains to the narrator concerning Mr. Edyh,
Monsieur, you just can’t conceive how futile it is to make objections to an angel who has taken it into his head to do good. Angels have a logic and dialectic all their own before which one is obliged to lower his lance. (172)
Makes me think of Boulle’s story “When the Serpent Failed” from Because it is Absurd, in which God, the Holy Computer, the serpent, and Jesus realize that Eve must eat the apple and gain knowledge of good and evil, because if she doesn’t, a planet-full of angelic people who don’t know the difference between right and wrong will become the scourge of the universe.
I told you Boulle was fun.