Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Debacle by Émile Zola

All these times I have been thinking that Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities would be my most favorite historical-war-novel ever. It’s just so memorable; with its famous opening “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times […]” and the pure love showed by Sidney Carton. In term of war, War and Peace was thicker in ‘war nature’ then A Tale, but Tolstoy emphasized too much on war idealism that it became partly too serious. But now I think I have found my new favorite historical-war-novel that exceeded those two: The Debacle.

The Debacle is the only historical novel by Émile Zola; it depicted the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), and became the penultimate novel of Rougon-Macquart series. The story began in the middle of the war; the main character is Jean Macquart—a farmer who had been in another war before—but now the Corporal of the 7th army corps. Another important character is Maurice Levasseur—a young man brought up well and educated—now a soldier under Jean’s command. At first they were indifferent of each other because of their different backgrounds; but in wars, status, education, wealth, everything that distinguishes someone dissolves and replaced by humanity. And so, having struggled together, Jean and Maurice became intimate friends, even closer than blood brother. They were willing to risk their own lives for the sake of the other.

In terms of the war, Zola has painstakingly written a very vivid picture of war as human-killing machine. It was compounded by French army’s bad coordination, incapability of the generals, and the indecision of the Emperor. France has been deluded itself by thinking of repeating the past grandeur of Napoleon. Many people could not realize that the Second Empire was corrupted, and that the Prussians was now much stronger than they have thought. Ironically, it was a civilian gentleman named Weiss (Maurice’s brother-in-law) who first predicted the great defeat of France, but at that time no one listened to him and even thought him a traitor. Moreover, Weiss—with no military background but his local knowledge of the land—could see what the Prussians would do; while none of the military general could read their strategy. It’s more than irony, it’s a stupidity. And what made the tragedy even tragic, was the stupidity of several people that finally destroyed many lives—the soldiers as well as civilians.

Zola explained to us his analysis of the root of the problems in chapter one – part one:

“The Empire grown old, still acclaimed in a plebiscite but basically rotten because it had weakened the idea of patriotism by destroying liberty, and then turning back to liberalism too late and thereby hastening its own undoing because it was ready to collapse as soon as it stopped satisfying the lust for pleasure it had let loose; the army certainly admirable as a brave lot of men, and still wearing the laurels of the Crimea and Italy, but adulterated by the system of paid substitutes, still in the old routine of the Africa school, too cocksure of victory to face the great effort of modern technique; and then the generals, most of them nonentities and eaten up with rivalries and some of them quite-stupefyingly ignorant, and at their head the Emperor, a sick man and vacillating, deceived and self-deceiving, and all facing this terrible adventure into which they were blindly hurling themselves, with no serious preparation, like a stampede of scared sheep being led to the slaughter.”

It was painful to read how the soldiers being maneuvered now here, then there, back and forth, and in poor conditions: fatigue, hungry, and distressed. And this was how I loved Zola’s The Debacle. Because it is not just a historical novel, it’s a living portrayal of a corrupted nation. Not only honest, but it was also painful; the ending especially. Actually it reminded me of Germinal, in the sense of a faint hope in future beneath the ruinous present. Like Etiènne Lantier, Jean Macquart was a simple man, and because of that, he never had the upper/middle class sentiment about French past grandeur. He was perhaps the least afflicted by the idea of beaten by the barbarians of Germany, and that was how he did not end like Maurice.

Zola proved himself as a great writer. The Debacle won’t be as it is if he had not done very thorough researches on the war and on how people reacted over it. And he (as usual) crafted the history and his naturalism theory on Rougon-Macquart in his beautiful, powerful, and intense narration. It instantly became my next favorite, along with Germinal, L’Assommoir, and La Bète Humaine.

Bravo Zola! Five stars for you!


I read Penguin Classics edition

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