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the other side of the coin

25 november 2018

The Other Side of the Coin begins as a stuffy little novel of the white man's burden, featuring fearless plantation managers in the 1950s Malay States holding the line against an indolent workforce and fiendish communist guerrillas. But since the author is Pierre Boulle, you know it won't be long before a sardonic twist of some sort. And Boulle delivers quickly enough. After treating us to a picture of life from the colonialists' point of view, he shifts the scene to the communist camp: where the leaders have to deal with parallel incompetence, parallel bureaucracies, and parallel hollow ideologies.

One suspects that people who so mirror-image one another could establish some points of contact. And they do, but only long enough to set up the next sardonic twist. When the guerrilla Ling is wounded in an assault and crawls into the cottage of the plantation manager Bernard Delavigne, Bernard's American wife Pat makes the young woman her civics project. She insists that the Delavignes harbor Ling, teach her French, and gradually Westernize and Christianize her. Pat is, after all, American, and in 1958 it was still nominally plausible that Americans could broker fairly between old colonial powers and young anti-colonial rebels. "There existed today nations both strong and just which made use of their power only to protect the weaker ones and to assist them to raise themselves to their own level," Pat maintains (107).

But of course (this being Pierre Boulle) Ling plays double agent, stealing intelligence, materiel, and money from the Delavignes on behalf of her communist comrades. Ling enthusiastically takes up life on both sides of the coin, becoming a tennis-playing, flirtatious fashion plate by day and a jungle terrorist by night. Things come to a head when the guerrillas plan an attack on the Delavigne bungalow with the aim of kidnapping Bernard and holding him as collateral for a prisoner exchange. And then further twists develop, which I won't spoil here.

The French title of Boulle's novel is Les voies du salut, which means roughly "the paths to salvation." Plural, because they take the form of communist idealism, Christian charity, and capitalist extraction. The Other Side of the Coin is less corrosively ironic, and plays up Boulle's more abstract delight in paradoxes and mirror-reversals. Richard Howard, still in his 20s and with more than a half-century of writing, editing, and translation ahead, delivered a formal, stylized version of Boulle's French that enhances the artificiality of the novel. Howard was not Boulle's regular translator. All of Boulle's major works, including The Bridge over the River Kwai and Planet of the Apes, were done in English by Boulle's fellow WW2 special agent Xan Fielding; but somehow this one fell to Howard.

The Other Side of the Coin is not a book much in demand. I scored a first edition at a bookstore in Kansas a few months ago for $7.95. I wonder if there will be a Boulle revival some day. His books have a postmodern, genre-fiction edge to them, though they are highly accessible: in this they remind me of the work of Jean Echenoz, and I would suspect Echenoz has some familiarity with Boulle's fiction. Of course, it seems odd to think of the originator of a cultural staple like Planet of the Apes as needing revival, but though everybody knows about that franchise, few may connect it with its creator (who by this point is uncredited and whose heirs presumably earn nothing from the films). But the rest of Boulle's wide-ranging work is distinctly worth revisiting, too.

Boulle, Pierre. The Other Side of the Coin. [Les voies du salut, 1958.] Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Vanguard, 1958.