Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Jean Raspail's "The Camp of the Saints": Book Review

The Camp of the Saints - Wikipedia
Recent flotillas of refugees from Africa and Syria caused a few bookworms and pundits to name-check this 1973 novel. Liberals practically put "scare quotes" around a mention of what they term a racist screed. Conservatives may praise it as a "classic." I knew of it way back via the maverick Garrett Hardin's perspective; he appealed if in different aspects to both ends of the political spectrum.

It popped into my mind the other day so I sat down and read it. It took two sittings. Raspail, as here translated by Norman Solomon, has a feverish, testy style that Michel Houellebecq, in his formative years in France, I suspect may well have come across. However, as Houellebecq's mordant fiction gains the same condemnations in bien-pensant right-thinking and left-leaning circles as Raspail's book, readers familiar with H. may find an encounter with R. bracing, infuriating, or baffling.

Raspail is credited on the blurb for The Camp of the Saints as a prize-winning author in his native land. Yet this novel flails from the get-go. The end of the story, or near it, jumbles up chronology. The sneering tone of the misanthropic narrator, the overabundant detail, the cardboard characters, the fact you don't care about anyone in the entire storyline: Raspail has scores to settle, but whether you'll be cheering him on or chasing him away depends not only on your own ideological bent, but your tolerance (a theme put through the wringer herein) for prattling. Raspail has it in for his countercultural era of the slightly aging hippies and the faux radicals of the early 1970s. He also despises the press, and some of the admittedly best barbs come as his narrator skewers the posturing.

I thought of the New York Times, for instance, when I found a similar send-up of earnestly PC journalists, who lambaste capitalism and despise corporations and capitalism in the same pages whose sponsors are those fat cats, and whose underwriting, so to say, supports the fulsome claptrap.

The key criticism, as Hardin reminded American readers decades ago, is that the "lifeboat" (here not symbol but story itself, multiplied all over the ocean as refugees set sail for Europe and the rest of whatever is the Western world circa 1973) cannot hold everyone. Either the rich have to share, and become poor themselves as such largess will not balance but tip over everyone into poverty, or they have to defend their realms with force, and "contempt" as Raspail later put it, lest they lose it all.

Odd tangents speckle this work. Clement Dio, a preening poser of the Third World solidarity his own bloodline allows him to capitalize on in more ways than one, is the best of a bad lot. But Raspail's mouthpiece hates worker-priests (back when there were enough clergy to go around), and the Dominicans (not for once the Jesuits) come in for comeuppance. Funny that one Benedict XVI reigns. Along with the Church, the unions, the press, and the military all get their turn at this "roast."

Yes, Raspail makes some points early on about the hypocrisy of the West, the implosion of its value system in a secularizing (well, not quite as it's still France in the post-Vatican II guitar mass phase) and skeptical society, and the contradictions inherent in the post-colonial world supported by the five (now more like six and a half) billion whose labor and losses prop up the seven hundred million whites. "The Last Chance Armada" makes a few at first hesitate but the pressure to welcome the human tide from over the sea leads many addled or idealistic Westerners, guilt ridden and excited to expiate their sins of neglect and greed, to proclaim "We Are All From the Ganges Now" as the first wave from India crests and others then join the exodus to the Northern Hemisphere, at least the wealthy part.

The narrative, such as it is, lurches through scenes of the army, a strange tangent with Benedictine monks, the chattering classes, a token couple from the working class, and those in factories and offices who find, as all anticipate the Easter Sunday mass landing of the sordid ships and their cargo, the early advantages taken by those in France itself who have earlier emigrated, and who maneuver their own prospects, eased by the care or fear taken by their "host nation," as it capitulates to them too

Interesting idea. Promising set-up. Fumbled execution. Fizzled climax. Ho-hum resolution as the narrator and Raspail seem too wearied or jaded to bother carrying on after so many pages of rants.
However, the relevance of this scenario cannot be gainsaid. Look at headlines. (Amazon US 6/5/17)

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