Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Gods Are Athirst by Anatole France

Life under The Terror
The Gods Are Athirst, a novel by Nobel Prize winner Anatole France, was originally published in 1912 under the French title of Les dieux ont soif. The story takes place from 1793 to 1794, during the period of the French Revolution known as The Terror. Évariste Gamelin is a young painter actively involved in the local political activities of his neighborhood. His enthusiasm for the Republican cause is duly noted, and he is appointed to the office of juror on the Revolutionary Tribunal. The Jacobins are rounding up former aristocrats and anyone else who might sympathize with the former king. These offenders are corralled into the courtroom for cursory show trials, wherein Gamelin and his fellow jurors pass judgment upon them, the usual sentence being death by guillotine. Gamelin is fiercely devoted to the Republican doctrine and practically worships the Jacobin leaders Marat and Robespierre. As his judicial office slowly transforms him from an earnest, likeable young man to a cold, merciless executioner, his family and friends begin to fear him, wary they might be next on the chopping block.

I usually think of France as a satirist, but in this historical novel he’s deadly serious. He does, however, contrast Gamelin with the character of Maurice Brotteaux, a former aristocrat who looks askance at the Republican rhetoric with an irreverent viewpoint and humorous sense of the ironic that one might expect from the author. France wrote this book for an audience of his fellow Frenchman, so the reader is expected to come armed with a prior knowledge of the Revolution. For the American reader, it can be tough going at times. France defines his characters by listing off the surnames of the politicians, philosophers, and artists they subscribe to, which can result in passages that read like a Parisian phone book. It’s not quite as confusing as Victor Hugo’s novel of the Revolution, Ninety-Three, but it’s neither as exciting nor as inspiring either. France’s takes on the period is more realistic and less heroic than Hugo’s, yet The Gods Are Athirst still presents a romantic tale that somewhat resembles a tragic opera.

France does a good job of evoking the atmosphere of paranoia and persecution that must have pervaded Paris under the Terror. Beyond its conveyance of time and place, however, the story is less than satisfying. It’s hard to become emotionally involved in a novel when you don’t care for the hero, and from early on it becomes difficult to root for Gamelin. The supporting cast, with the possible exception of Brotteaux, are underdeveloped. They all sort of orbit around Gamelin, but none of them ever steps up to challenge him as the focus of attention. There are some compelling moments around the book’s mid-point, but the first half crawls, and the ending is a foregone conclusion.

While the dramatic potential of the French Revolution is undeniable, The Gods Are Athirst never takes full advantage of that potential. The result is more educational than moving. Ultimately this is one historical novel where the history outshines the novel.
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