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time out of mind

8 december 2018

The French Wikipedia page on Pierre Boulle recommends the story "Une nuit interminable" (1949). I believe this is the story translated as the title item in Time Out of Mind (1966). I was unable to get the French original because my library helpfully refused to order it, on the grounds that they owned the same book in English – because after all, it's the same information, isn't it? I am either an unforgivable snob, or library algorithms do not understand the difference between originals and translations. Or both.

Xan Fielding and Elisabeth Abbott did an entertaining job with "Time Out of Mind" back in the 1960s, though. Boulle's narrator is Oscar Vincent, a postwar Parisian trying to enjoy a nice beer on an August evening in 1949. Vincent is accosted by a time-traveler from 8,000 years ago, who has somehow picked up a Roman toga along the way. But Paris being what it is, "there were foreigners belonging to every race, and wearing every kind of clothing. A Badarian in a toga was not in the least conspicuous" (20).

Vincent knows about Badarians because they've been the focus of much archeological news. But nobody had suspected them of developing time travel. This, Amoun the Badarian explains, is because 20th-century people are idiots, always interpreting ancient hi-tech items as "fetishes or decorative objects" (12). Meanwhile, Badaria has learned to travel through time, and not a minute too soon (or late?): because the forces of Pergolia, from thousands of years in the future, are fixing to invade Badaria.

And wouldn't you know it, a spy from Pergolia (and the distant future) shows up in the same café. This fellow, known as Djing-Djong, is on his way to the far BC to scout out some Badarian Lebensraum for his overpopulated nation.

Time travel is easy, Amoun and Djing-Djong explain to our steadily drunker narrator. Their chronologies do not change as they travel; there continues to be a now for each of them as they visit different thens. Consequently, they do not know yet that each will kill the other in their respective futures. Vincent only learns this in the course of a "night without end" where his new friends keep zooming off in different temporal directions and returning to fill him in on their exploits – at one point bringing vanguards of their armies with them to fight a preliminary skirmish on the streets of Montparnasse.

In the end, Amoun and Djing-Djong are revealed to have become the same person in the Möbian course of their travels, and Vincent grabs one of their time machines in hopes of breaking out of this mad loop of events. Which does him no good because he just ends up back at the start of his interminable evening, ready to have the same experience over and over forever.

Temporal paradoxes come into play in Boulle's Planet of the Apes, if I remember correctly (at least they do in some of its adaptations). And the paradox of deadly enemies mirroring and merging is one of his overarching themes, from William Conrad to The Bridge over the River Kwai and The Other Side of the Coin. I don't have time (heh) to read the rest of the SF stories in Time Out of Mind, but I am intrigued by its title story's goofiness, satire, and philosophical insights.

Boulle, Pierre. "Time Out of Mind." In Time Out of Mind. [Contes de l'absurde.] Translated by Xan Fielding & Elisabeth Abbott. New York: Vanguard, 1966. 7-42.