Monday, December 6, 2010

Book Review: 'Chaos and Night' by Henry de Monterlant

Chaos and Night (1963)
Henry de Montherlant (1896-1972)

236 pages

Celestino Marcilla, the central character in Henry de Montherlant's novel Chaos and Night, lives in Paris, an exile of twenty years from his native Spain. After fighting as an anarchist with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, he crossed the border into France with tens of thousands of his countrymen in early 1939, in panicked retreat from Franco's Nationalist army. (For more on the history of the war, see The Spanish Civil War.)   In Paris he shares an apartment with his daughter --- his wife having died in childbirth soon after the end of the civil war.

Not having to work, due to an inheritance skillfully retrieved from Spain for him by a lawyer, Don Celestino also has never learned to speak French, though he can read it competently. He spends his days reading French and Spanish newspapers, and writing anonymous editorials to the newspapers, deriding the political and social situation in the world, in particular in Spain and France, from his anarchist slant. Few of these end up in print; most, in fact, he never even sends out, carefully filing them for a book he never actually gets around to writing. Filled with melancholy for Spain, but disgusted by the fascist regime and his former countrymen who support it, he also has little love for France or the rest of the world.

As the years have passed in France, he remains consumed with his memories of fighting both the nationalists as well as his non-anarchist compatriots --- socialists and communists --- in the Republican militia. With nothing in his life of exile to match the thrill of fighting for his beliefs in the civil war, Don Celestino's anarchism becomes a hardened dogma that defines his life, and begins to warp his perception of reality. He observes and challenges the world around him and finds it in most ways wanting based on his social and political viewpoint. Friend and foe, relation and stranger, all are judged --- and generally condemned --- for their failure to meet his strict standards. He attempts to recapture the excitement of the civil war years by creating conflicts with both friends and strangers, though instead of the physical violence of the war he settles for verbal tirades on the ills of society and mischievous pranks to disrupt what he considers the blind and complacent bourgeois. Having finally rejected the few friends he has made in France over the years, the story finds him sinking into a self-imposed morass of loneliness and isolation, and he feels death drawing near.

This spell is broken by a note from Madrid informing him that his sister has died and he needs to come to settle matters related to the inheritance. Overcoming fears that he will be found out as a former left-wing militia member, he travels to Madrid with his daughter. As he wanders the streets of Madrid for the first time in over 20 years, his senses heightened by his fear of being recognized as an anarchist and former Republican fighter, he feels a new excitement to his life, but also experiences a deepening disconnect from reality, as he interprets every smile or frown from a stranger as connected to his involvement in the long past civil war. The story reaches its climax at a bullfight he attends, which for Don Celestino takes on the dimensions of a representation of the human condition, and speaks directly to his own past and present; his political views and his approach to life become filtered through the lens of the battle between the bull on the one side, and the bullfighter and his helpers on the other. (For a look at bullfighting, see the review for Or I'll Dress You in Mourning.)

In Don Celestino, Montherlant portrays the perilous ends of allowing one's principles and convictions to overrule empathy and sympathy for others, and the insanity that lies at the end of allowing dogma to rule one's life and relationships. Don Celestino replays in miniature the internal strife between political parties that tore apart the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War even as it was losing the larger battle to the Nationalists. Montherlant does, however, manage to walk a fine line in the story: there is humor in what Don Celestino says and does, but he never seems a clown; he creates a sad life for himself, but his strength in facing it holds us back from finding him pitiful.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
The back cover review, from The New York Review Books

No comments:

Post a Comment