1 March, 2024


What Octave Mirabeau Said About Ceylon!

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr Laksiri Fernando

Octave Mirbeau’s “The Torture Garden” is undoubtedly a classic novel, but a controversial one. Different people appreciate it for different reasons. Sadistic beauty or cruelty, literary brilliance, poetic humour, powerful critique against politicians and bureaucracy are some. He was also sarcastic about scientists and intellectuals. It was once described as “the most sickening work of art in the nineteenth century.”

I recently reviewed it for Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, a publication by the Asian Human Rights Commission. The reason was that the novel, irrespective of being a fiction, powerfully depicts the horrors of torture, practiced both in the West and the East (particularly China), and some of the events and methods narrated are based on ‘some history.’ For example, the story relates the brutal beheading of our ‘child hero’ Madduma Bandara in 1814 by the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, but attributes it to the British by mistake or by purpose.

But that is not the only reason why the novel could be of some interest to the Sri Lankan readers. There are so many other interesting references to Ceylon, not necessarily complimentary though, and amusingly, there are similarities between the politics of today and politics in France of that time where the story actually begins. To understand the nature or nuances, the context of the novel needs to be understood.

The novel was first published in 1899 during the scandalous Dreyfus Affair, where an Army Captain was framed for ‘conviction of treason’ whereas the real culprit was another. Anyone can find references to this incident easily. This ‘affair’ is sarcastically criticised in the novel and one may even find some similarity to the ‘Fonseka trials’ in Sri Lanka recently.

Titled Le Jardin des Supplices, novel was translated from the French to English by Alvah Bessie in 1929. There are several editions to the book, but the present review is based on the Bookkake (London) publication in 2008, now available online as Google book with an excellent introduction by Tom McCarthy.

The Story

The narrator goes anonymous; “my name matters little,” he says. As a ‘political henchman’ par excellence he has “caused great suffering to others as well as to himself.” Let us call him Frank.

“Twelve years ago, no longer knowing what to do…my candidacy was officially supported by the cabinet which, no longer knowing what to do with me.” “On this occasion I held a solemn and intimate interview with the Minister, who was my friend and old school-chum.” It looks like Sri Lanka! He was nominated to contest an agricultural district and then the Minister advices him to do the following. The Minister’s name is given, Eugene Mortain.

“Promise fabulous crops – extraordinary chemical fertilizers – free. Promise rail roads, canals, routs for transportation of this interesting and patriotic vegetable. Announce reduction in taxes, bonuses for the farmers, atrocious duties on competitive products – anything you like!” But the ‘poor-fellow’ gets badly defeated at the election. As he says, “I faithfully followed this program [fooling the voters] which my powerful friend had laid out for me, and I was wrong. I was not elected.”

Then comes a more fabulous offer from the Minister, of course officially endorsed by the cabinet. Our ‘hero’ is sent to Asia to carry out some pseudo-scientific investigations. As the Minister offered, “It involves going to India, Ceylon, I believe, to drag the sea, in the gulfs, and study what the scientists call the pelagic ooze, you understand?”

Minister also adds that, “Ah, my lad you won’t be bored down there. Ceylon is marvellous. They say there are extraordinary women there, little lace makers – beautiful – temperamental! It’s the earthly paradise!”

“Bah!” He cried. “After all I could easily be an embryologist once in my life. What do I risk? Science won’t die of it. It’s been through the mill! Done! I accept the expedition to Ceylon.” He adds.

“Armed with letters of recommendations to the authorities at Ceylon, I finally embarked at Marseille one splendid afternoon, on the Saghalien,” he says. Saghalien is the name of the ship. Frank goes as a ‘celebrated scientist.’ On the ship, he becomes slowly friendly with an English woman everyone calls Miss Clara, who lives in China. They pass Naples, Port Said and many other places. The crossing of the Red Seas is the most excruciating, the heat is crushing. They cross the gulf, see the coast of the Somaliland, but no ‘sea pirates’ like today.

Clara is the ‘heroin’ of our story, with whom our ‘hero’ is infatuated with. Clara is the strong character. There is a psychological angle to the novel with admiration for feminism; love and sex as part of it.

Before Colombo

Even before reaching Colombo, Frank studied the available information about the country and says the following.

“I profited by leisure to inform myself about Ceylon, its customs and landscapes, and to construct an idea of the life I would lead down there in those terrible tropics.” “Even after eliminating the exaggerated, boastful, and mendacious elements of traveller’s tales…” what has he found to report?

“I was enchanted by what I read – particularly by this detail, reported by a sober German savant: that in the suburbs of Colombo there exists, amid fairy gardens by the sea, a marvellous villa bungalow, as they say, in which a rich and eccentric Englishman maintains a sort of harem where all races of India, from the black Tamoules to the sinous bayaderes [graceful dancers] of Lahore, and the demoniac bacchantes [devilish nudes] of Benares, are represented by perfect specimens of femininity.”

“I definitely made up my mind to find some means of gaining access to this amateur polygamist, and to confine my studies of comparative embryology to that spot.” But after reaching Colombo, there is no mention about this ‘spot,’ let alone ‘studies of comparative embryology.’

Eugene (the Minister) also had told him about the country, its size, “Briefly, when you have travelled over a hundred square miles of countryside, no matter where, you have seen everything.” “You’ll see nature…trees…flowers!” But Frank does not have much appetite for nature. “As far as I’m concerned, trees get on my nerves,” he says. He comes to know about various palm trees, coconuts, bananas, mangoes, shaddock and pandanus and says, “If I can gather in their shade all sorts of pretty little women who munch between their lips something better than betel-nut.” He takes special pun about the coconut tree. “Coconut tree or cocotte-tree! I only like its truly Parisian classification.” In French, ‘cocotte’ could mean prostitute.

It was before reaching Colombo that our hero reveals to Clara, now his ‘girlfriend’ that he is not actually a scientist. Clara is not surprised. “Well,” she said simply, “that doesn’t astonish me very much. And I honestly believe all scientists are like you.” She relates this story in Ceylon.

“I know one of them,” she went on. “He was a naturalist…of your type. He had been sent by the British Government to study the coffee-parasite on the plantations in Ceylon. Well for three months, he did not leave Colombo. He spent his time playing poker and getting drunk on champagne.” This is a reference to the Hemileia vastarix in 1869 that destroyed the coffee plantation and sparked the birth of the tea industry in Ceylon, but no one could be sure whether the story about that scientist is true or not. It doesn’t need to be true.

Revelation of Ceylon

Our hero was excited to see Ceylon, what his Minister friend described as a ‘paradise.’

“One morning, coming out on deck, I could make out, thanks to the transparence of the atmosphere, and as clearly as though I were treading its soil, the enchanted island of Ceylon; that green and red island crowned by the fairy like rosy whiteness of Adam’s Peak.”

“We had already been warned of its approach the evening before by the new perfumes of the sea and mysterious invasion of butterflies which, after accompanying the ship for a few hours, suddenly disappeared. And without desiring anything more, both Clara and I found it exquisite that the island had extended us a welcome through the medium of these dazzling and poetic messengers. I had reached such a point of sentimental poeticism that the mere sight of butterfly made all the strings of tenderness and ecstasy vibrant in my breast.”

“But that morning the actual sight of Ceylon caused me great anguish – more than anguish – terror.” This was not because there was anything particularly wrong with Ceylon, but because of the feeling that Frank had to leave Clara who was going to China and he had to stay in Ceylon.

It appeared “the end of the prodigious dream which Clara’s love had been for me.” “I desired none but her; I wanted none but her. Nothing any longer existed outside or beyond her.” “How could I accept the fact that, after having been conquered – soul, body an brain – by this irrevocable, indissoluble and martyrizing love, I would have to give it up.”

Thereafter, whatever he saw in Ceylon was negative, funny and terrible. But for an enlightened Sri Lankan reader, it could be amusing and revealing – of course, if you are not a pathetic ‘patriot.’

“It meant the nightmare that my head was in Ceylon, my feat in China, separated by abysses of ocean, and that I would continue to live in these two stumps which could never be united.” This sentiment is like today, the governing politicians feeling that their feet are in Sri Lanka, though heads are in China!

His feelings were subjective and not objective. On the objective side he admitted, “The Sea was gentle, calm and radiant. It exhaled the perfumes of a Utopian shore, a blossoming orchard and a bed of love, which made me weep.” “The ship touches at Colombo two days. Then it leaves again.”

To Clara “It’s so simple!” “Well, stop trembling…stop weeping…and come with me.” “I have powerful friends in China. They could undoubtedly do a lot for you!” “In China life is free, joyous, complete, unconventional, unprejudiced, lawless…at least for us. No other limits to liberty or to love.”

Now he could go to China “instead of rotting away in Ceylon.” The invitation is extended. “Had I actually crawled far enough into the skin of a scientist to imagine that I was going to discover the cell, by plunging into the gulf of the Singhalese coast?” he asked from himself.

Visiting Colombo

“It had been decided that Clara and I would spend the two days in port of Colombo visiting the city and the suburbs where my friend had stayed and which she knew thoroughly.” Now all along he had negative feelings of the country. About the climate, this is what he said; he tried to refute the concept of paradise.

“The heat there was torrid, so torrid that the coolest places – by comparison – in this atrocious land (where the scientists have located the earthly paradise), such as the gardens on the banks of the strand, seemed to me to be stifling steam rooms.” He even had some repulsion for the people. Referring to the waiters and bellboys at the hotel, he said, “the boys who, by the colour of their skin and the structure of their bodies, recalled the naïve gingerbread men of our Parisian fairs.”

“Walking on Slave Island, which is the Bois of the place, or in Pettah, which is its Mouffetard quarter, we only encountered horrible Englishwomen out of an operetta, togged out as though for a carnival, in light costumes, half European and half Hindu.” Bois is a red light area in Paris and Mouffetard is a rich shopping and business area. It appears that even those days kurta (loose shirt) with trouser was popular with elite women.

“Singhalese still more horrible than the Englishwomen, old at twelve years, wrinkled as prunes, twisted as aged vine-stalks, caved in like ruined straw huts, with gums like bleeding wounds, lips burned by the areca-nut and teeth the colour of an old pipe.”

He was rather disappointed. “I sought in vain for the voluptuous women, the negresses with their wise love-techniques, the pert little lace makers of whom that liar Eugene Mortain had spoken, with their eyes so significantly provocative.” Then he says, “And with all my heart I pitied the poor scientists they sent here, with their problematic mission of discovering the secret of life.”

In fact Frank was joking with Clara on these matters and commented, “But I realised Clara had no taste for these facile and coarse jokes, and I found it prudent to attenuate them…”

In Colombo, he also goes to ‘Kolpetty’ that is to sort out his ‘scientific matters.’ As he says, “Among the letters of recommendation I had brought from Paris, there was one to a certain Sir Oscar Terwick who…was the president of the Association of Tropical Embryology and British Entomology in Colombo.”

There is some description of Kolpetty, “He lived far off in a suburb called Kolpetty which was, so to speak, the Passy of Colombo.” “There, in the midst of luxurious gardens, graced by the inevitable coconut tree, in spacious and bizarre villas, the rich merchants and notable officials of the city lived.” He also mentions about “a sort of little square shaded by immense teakwood trees.” Passy in Paris probably is the wealthiest residential area. It appears that those days, Colombo meant only the centre, but not the whole of Colombo city like today, thus Kolpetty was a ‘far off place’ for him.

“I gave a detailed and acted version of this interview” with Sir Terwick. “She laughed like a mad woman.” “The next morning, after a savage night of love, we put to sea again en route to China.”

Slaughter of Madduma Bandara

The story of the beheading of the ‘child hero’ of Sri Lanka, Madduma Bandara, comes much later in the novel, when Frank and Clara were discussing torture in China. The story is related by none other than Clara herself who has claimed to visit Ceylon several times. Even those days it appears that the ‘international community’ was concerned about human rights in Sri Lanka! The full description is the following.

“Ah, I remember the strange sensation I felt when, at Kandy, the gloomy former capital of Ceylon, I went up the steps of the temple where the English had stupidly, without torture, slaughtered the little Modeliar princes who, legends tell us, were so charming…like those skilfully made Chinese ikons, with so hieratically clam and pure of grace, and their golden halos and their long hands pressed together.”

“I felt that what had happened there on those sacred steps, still uncleansed of that blood by eighty years of violent possession – was something more horrible than a human massacre; the destruction of a precious, trouncing and innocent beauty.”

What a nice twist of the story for the glee of Sinhala patriotism!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comment

  • 0

    An enchanting story with a ring of truth. Old version of wikileaks.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.