Monday, May 14, 2018

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE CAMP OF THE SAINTS” by Jean Raspail (Le Camp des Saints first published 1973; American translation by Norman Shapiro first published 1975)

If you have never heard of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints – which I hadn’t until a couple of months ago – you will begin reading this notice with no preconceptions. If you have already heard of The Camp of the Saints, you will probably be wondering why I am giving space to such a notorious novel.
When the novel was first published in France in 1973, it was an immediate bestseller, and has continued to be so. Although known for his markedly conservative views, Jean Raspail (born 1925) was a respected travel writer who had been given, in 1970, an award by the Academie Francaise for his life’s work. Translated into English, The Camp of the Saints was at first published in the United States by a respectable mainstream publisher (Scribner’s) in 1975 and its paperback edition appeared under a mainstream imprint (Ace Books) in 1977. It received a few positive reviews, but most reviews were extremely negative. The mainstream publishers dropped it, but it remained a bestseller. Each of its many English-language re-printings since 1977 has been under the imprint of various right-wing organizations, respectively the Institute for Western Values, the Immigration Control Foundation, and most recently, in 2015, the Social Contract Press, in which edition I found a copy in the Auckland Central Library and took it home to read.
Now why is this novel, so wide-selling yet so controversial, shunned by mainstream publishers and despised by most reviewers? Indeed why, by merely noticing it, will I run the risk of being said to cover a book as poisonous as Mein Kampf or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?
Because The Camp of the Saints is essentially about the death of the West as it is inundated by Third World refugees from poverty, and as such it is (as the blurb of the Ace paperback puts it) about “the end of the white world”.
So it is very racist.
A synopsis won’t take long.
In about 2000 (remember Raspail was writing in 1972-73), a huge flotilla of ships, carrying about a million wretched and poor people, sets off from the Ganges in India, heading for Europe. As their journey is tracked, Western countries react in various ways. Most Western leaders secretly hope that the flotilla will head somewhere else or be destroyed by a storm. Some even tentatively suggest that the ships could be bombed discreetly in mid-ocean. But in public, leaders say encouraging and politically-correct words about welcoming their poor Indian brethren. Student radicals, mass-media opinion-makers and what remains of the church all speak of the West as waiting to be invigorated and renewed by the culture of the East.
Finally the ships beach themselves on the southern coast of France. Among the local French population there is panic as the best part of a million Indians land and begin to ransack town and countryside. The local French flee north. The President of the French Republic sends the army south to contain, and possibly repel, the invading masses. But the army disintegrates, as most units are young conscripts who have been infected with ideas of pacifism and universal brotherhood. Besides, many idealistic youngsters and the usual suspects (students, opinion-makers, the church etc.) have come south to welcome the invaders and set up militias to oppose what remains of the army.
Inasmuch as it has leading characters – for it is mainly composed of a generalised and highly satirical tracking of events – the novel focuses on a wise old retired professor, viewing the invasion from a village high on a hill, and the last remaining unit of officers and men who are loyal to the army, who join him up there. They are depicted as the last defenders of traditional French culture and, by implication, all of European culture. Before being wiped out by bombers from the new multi-racial collaborationist government, they make a last heroic stand. They are “the camp of the saints” (a phrase plucked from John’s Apocalypse) pitted against the forces of the Devil.
Okay. Paranoid racist fantasy – and believe me, parts of it are very racist. Raspail can never mention the Indian refugees without noting how filthy they are, how much they stink and how violent and libidinous they are. This is the nightmare of a European traditionalist besieged by the thought of his culture being swamped. It is also, unavoidably, very dated in some details. (The novel’s South Africa is still the apartheid state, the Soviet Union still exists etc.)
Yet Jean Raspail is not a complete fool – remember, we are dealing here with an Academie Francaise prize-winner. Many of the comments he makes about current European culture are shrewd. The two-facedness of political leaders like the President and his inner circle, secretly hoping that the flotilla will be destroyed but publicly mouthing fashionable pieties, seems credible enough. So are the student radicals, whose main impulse is to smash what actually exists without having any practicable alternative. (As many have pointed out, Raspail was writing only a few years after the Parisian student riots of 1968.) Raspail has great fun in showing the radical welcoming committees running for cover once they are face to face with real impoversished people – indeed he has even more fun showing many multi-culturalists coming to sticky ends. Raspail reserves special ire for the Catholic church which has, in his view, become soft, sentimental and vaguely humanitarian ever since Vatican II. He clearly yearns for former days, when the church exalted the nationalist cult of Joan of Arc and was a bulwark of traditional Frenchness. Now (in his view) it consists of guitar-strumming hippie-ish priests spouting left-ish slogans. So the West is spineless, limp, pacifistic and widely despising the noble profession of arms.
Let me admit that I read this novel with ease and a certain measure of enjoyment. It may be a bilious rant, but Raspail writes clearly, keeps up a tremendous pace, and has a tone of magisterial scorn for just about everything that is, in its own way, invigorating.
Now let’s consider the novel’s relationship with the real world.
The Camp of the Saints was written before there were yet major concerns about the number of Muslims entering Europe. Indeed Islam and Muslims are hardly mentioned in the novel. Note that the “invaders” are the poor millions of India, not refugees or economic migrants from Syria and North Africa. The nightmare that sends Raspail off on his rant is the nightmare of “overpopulation” in poor countries and falling fertility in Western countries – or to put it even more crudely, the fact that “the white race” is becoming even more of a minority in the world. When the novel was written, there was much alarmism about “overpopulation”, instanced in Paul Ehlich’s bestselling diatribe The Population Bomb (published in 1968). The nostrum usually proposed was to limit the fertility of poorer nations so that they would match the decreasing fertility of Western nations. In such propaganda, there was always an undercurrent of implicit racism. Raspail has simply taken what was an acceptable theory among those who saw themselves as progressives and liberals forty years ago, and given it a more explicit and French spin.
But for some people at least, the novel’s vision has easily been adapted to the present situation. When has there ever been such intensive debate about non-European immigrants into Europe as there is now? The Camp of the Saints is a favourite with the followers of Marine Le Pen and populists in other parts of Europe. It was also apparently a favourite of Steve Bannon (formerly senior advisor to Donald Trump) as he stressed over illegal Mexican immigrants. Ignoring the fact that Raspail is never concerned with Islam, the European populists now call this a “prophetic” novel.
Let me pause a little before my, or your, bile about this novel runs over. I will state where I stand on some of these issues. I love inherited European culture, Western democracy and the rule of law. But if a continent gradually depopulates itself with low birth rates, then it is only logical that people from countries with higher birth rates will come and settle there. And good luck to them. To put it another way, if white Europeans are really concerned about being overrun, they should (a.) find ways of getting on with, and accommodating, other cultures and peoples; and (b.) have more children… or stop complaining about other people having more children than they do. There is more to Europe’s current immigrant crisis than this, of course, and among those who would welcome all immigrants or refugees with open arms, there is often a naïvete about how well different cultures can relate to one another (Sharia law, anyone?) and an assumption that all newcomers will be only too willing to assimilate into a secular, democratic system. All indicators are that European society’s main culture will be changed profoundly and that some secular norms will be under severe stress. It is not racist to point this out.
One little slap before I sign off. Raspail’s novel has been denounced as an extremist presentation of an unlikely scenario. Probably it is. But then many dystopian novels can come under the same charge, even ones that are highly acclaimed. After all, is Raspail’s vision of non-Europeans swamping Europe any more extreme, and unlikely, than Margaret Atwood’s vision of a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship in The Handmaid’s Tale? The fact is, with novels such as these, critics tends to like or dislike them according to how well they respond to their ideology.

1 comment:

  1. It's refreshing to read a balanced, unemotional review of such a book in an age when most people would simply condemn it. I also think you make a great point about critics favouring dystopian novels that present a 'message' they agree with. The Handmaid's Tale is a good example... many people say it is quite plausible, and it is. It's already happening in countries like Saudi Arabia! But I suppose it's only considered dystopian if the scenario is affecting Westerners.

    Ryan Wood