Home > 1940, 20th Century, Dystopian Fiction, French Literature, Science Fiction > Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel – stinking dystopia

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel – stinking dystopia

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel (1943) Original French title: Ravage.

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel is on the list of books teachers in collège (middle-school) can use in French class. In my opinion, it needs to come with a truckload of explanations not to lead the students astray.

Ashes, Ashes is a dystopia written in 1943, during the Occupation. The book is composed of four parts: The New Times, The Fall of Cities, The Trail of Ashes and The Patriarch. For this reader it went from fun, to déjà-vu, to boring and to distasteful.

We’re in Paris, in 2052. François Deschamps comes to town after a stay with his parents in Provence. (Barjavel was from Nyons, in Provence). He’s waiting for the results of an exam to work in agricultural engineering and he’s looking forward to meeting Blanche, his childhood sweetheart. When he was away, Blanche has been recruited to be a new singer on a famous TV channel and is about to start a new life. She knows that François won’t approve but she wants to have fun and enjoy her life.

In 2052, people travel on high-speed trains, live in skyscrapers, have AC, can’t walk more than a few meters and eat industrially grown food. It’s always fun to read old dystopian books and see how people imagined the future.

Barjavel imagines apartments in skyscrapers with big screens on the walls with TV shows. Some things are spot on – People can “facetime”— and some things show how difficult it is to think out of the box and imagine technologies or services that don’t exist yet.

For example, when François is on the train, Barjavel imagines that, to read at night, you can adapt a screen on your book, put on earbuds and call for a service where the book is read to you. He doesn’t imagine e-books with backlit screen but an armload of readers over the phone, reading you the book of your choice in your language.

People don’t do anything by themselves. Dead relatives are conserved in apartments as if they were in a wax museum and people live under the scrutiny of their elders. Art is controlled by state run schools and only official artists are allowed to sell their work. Everybody lives in towns, the countryside has been left behind, except in some areas in Provence where a few families people kept farming like in the old times. And François and Blanche come from these families.

We’re in a society shaped by technology and François is very critical and would rather have people going back to the land. His attitude towards Blanche rubbed me the wrong way but I kept thinking that it was other times. I didn’t think Barjavel was very ironic about the ancestors’ watching their offspring. I kept thinking that it was creepy and that your parents could be real bastards you’d be happy not to see ever again. This started to feel a bit too Travail, Famille, Patrie for my tastes.

Then the power is out and everything falls apart. The heat is intense (climate change!), people start loitering, fighting and killing to survive. It’s the Fall of Cities. Without electricity, everything collapses very quickly. Lifts don’t work, planes drop from the sky, dead ancestors thaw, communications are cut and nobody knows how to do anything by hand. All we see is violence, devastation, cholera and fires destroying this modern civilization. François gets Blanch under his arm, gathers a group of people and prepares to leave Paris. This part is probably a reminder of the 1940 exodus.

François and his group leave Paris as fast as they can and start walking south to find shelter in Provence. This third part, The Trail of Ashes, is their journey to safety. We follow the group of people during their travels to Provence, through a hostile environment. The country is so dry that it’s burning everywhere and water gets scarce. I thought this part was a little too long, we got his drift from the start. Brother will turn on brother, nature quicky becomes hostile. I still didn’t like François Deschamps and his patriarchal attitude.

And then came the last part and epilogue, a mere fifteen pages of stinking garbage. The group of people have arrived in Provence and started to cultivate the fields, to provide for themselves. So far, so good. Follows the description of the new civilization built by François, the Patriarch.

They are all peasants and live off the land. A system is organized to maintain peace between communities. Villages mustn’t have more than five hundred families living in the same place and a man can’t own more land than the surface he’s able to patrol in one long summer day.

Polygamy is the rule and ugly girls are grateful for it because they couldn’t get a husband otherwise. Blanche accepted it gracefully because men had to plant as many seeds as possible to repopulate the world. François remarries at an ancient age to a very young girl to have more offspring. He’s valued as a patriarch:

Autant que sa grande sagesse, et la longue et claire vie que Dieu lui a accordée, ce qui a valu au patriarche le respect des populations, c’est que parmi les deux cent vingt-huit enfants nées de ses femmes respectives, il n’a eu qu’une fille. Encore lui est-elle venue alors qu’il avait dépassé cent ans. A cette miraculeuse abondance de mâles, les paysans simples ont reconnu la faveur octroyée par le Ciel à une race de maîtres et s’en sont réjouis.

More than his great wisdom and this long and clear life that God granted him, the patriarch won the respect of the population because among his deux hundred and twenty eight children born to his respective wives, he had only one girl. And she was born when he was more than a hundred years old. The simple peasants saw in this miraculous abundance of males, the blessing of Heavens to a race of males and rejoiced in it.

Paul, married to François’s only daughter named Blanche will replace him when he dies. Of course, Paul is blond. So, a blond guy married to a woman named White will be the next patriarch and rule France. I think that this detail is significant in 1943. (I checked, only 10% of French people are blond.)

Technology is forbidden because François is against it. Books are banned and burnt as soon as someone finds one. Books are evil. That was the last sentence that broke this reader’s back. 

Writing this billet, I reread the passages and tried to find a second meaning, a veiled criticism of this new world. The only trace of it is when a young man comes to François, proudly showing off a steam machine, built to help with field work and alleviate the workers’ burden. Barjavel seems to concede that progress is inevitable and that humanity won’t stand for too long to live at the Stone Age. François promptly destroys the machine as evil too. Apart from this tiny detail, nothing.

I didn’t expect Ashes, Ashes to reek of Petain’s ideology. One reads books by Céline with their eyes open. In my mind, Barjavel was the author of La Nuit des Temps (1968), a wonderful love story I loved as a teenager and of the Chemins de Katmandou. (1969) I never expected him to be this reactionary. Heck, I don’t expect dystopian fiction to be reactionary. I expect dystopian books to show what will happen to humanity when humanism is thrown away. And more than that, I don’t expect the rebel of the dystopian book to be the founder of a new civilization that is way worse than the one they wanted gone.

I’d like to think I got it all wrong. According to Wikipedia, Ashes, Ashes was first published during the war in the collaborationist and antisemitic weekly newspaper, Je suis partout. Knowing that, it’s hard to think that Barjavel wasn’t seriously on board with the thesis developed in the fourth part of his novel. Or he really perjured himself writing Ashes, Ashes. If I missed something, I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments. 

See why this book needs to be thoroughly discussed in class when young minds read it? 

  1. March 21, 2021 at 9:39 pm

    Yikes! There’s a lot of unpleasant baggage in that one – I wonder how it’s actually taught in schools????

    Like

    • March 21, 2021 at 10:12 pm

      I’ll have to ask my daughter, she did it in school.

      I think it’s interesting to study it in French class while studying WWII in History class, for example. Anything can be tought in school with the proper help of a teacher who adapts the lessons to the age of their public.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. March 22, 2021 at 2:14 am

    With the right teacher, historical context, and maybe a contrasting text, it could provoke some interesting discussions, but still…

    Like

    • March 22, 2021 at 7:03 am

      I’ve been wondering if I missed something and shouldn’t have taken it literally but I don’t see it.

      Yes, I think it can be a good starting point about artists during WWII and also about the ideology under it. The last part is the problematic one, the other ones are OK.

      The first one, with the description of the new world is like Farenheit 451 for example. You discover a new way of living and François isn’t completely on board with it. It is a criticism of too much progress and how it “softens” mankind, which was, apparently a topical discussion at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 23, 2021 at 1:47 am

        As you say it would be really interesting to hear from a teacher who has experience teaching it. I think Tom’s description of the last part sounds like it might sum it up very well.

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 23, 2021 at 12:25 pm

          I’m not sure this sexism is due to the genre. To me, it feels more like an ideology of the respective place of men and women in society than like the usual saint/whore/femme fatale roles in genre fiction.

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  3. March 22, 2021 at 4:22 am

    Well, of course I was curious… so I had a look at Goodreads. Most readers gave it only one star and are very critical of it.
    I’ve read a bit of Chinese Lit which operates under very heavy literary censorship just as France did under the Occupation. What I’ve found with that is that authors have found ways to be critical of the regime without being censored. So, I’m wondering, is it possible that this is a satire, or that the distasteful characters are veiled symbols of the collaborators?

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    • March 22, 2021 at 7:30 am

      The first part is a satire of a society led by technology and this part isn’t an issue. The last part is the worst. I tried to find a hidden meaning somewhere but I couldn’t find it.

      I don’t know if he was trying to outsmart censorship but this book was published in a disgusting newspaper too.

      I looked on Wikipedia to see what other famous French books were published from 1941 to 1944 and you have:
      – 1941 : L’homme pressé by Paul Morand
      – 1942: L’Etranger by Camus
      – 1943: L’armée des ombres by Joseph Kessel,
      – 1943 : L’invitée by Simone de Beauvoir
      – 1943 : Le Petit Prince by Saint Exupéry
      – 1944 : Aurélien by Aragon

      So, other writers found ways to publish non-compromising books…

      He could have written something else, or stopped the novel at the end of the third part, when the group arrives in Provence. It would have been a satisfactory ending. The last part about this new society isn’t necessary to the story. He didn’t have to write it unless he wanted to.

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      • March 22, 2021 at 7:58 am

        I see what you mean. Well, it will be interesting to hear what the teachers do with is, keep us informed, please:)

        Like

        • March 22, 2021 at 8:07 am

          I wish I knew someone who teaches French so I could ask.

          Like

  4. March 22, 2021 at 7:50 am

    That’s an interesting book to have been published in Paris in 1943. I’m surprised the author didn’t have other things on his mind than technological dystopias. I hope I come across it one day. It’s possible that the last section was the price he paid for being published at all – which doesn’t make it or the author any less distasteful.
    I agree with you that old books can be read and discussed with children to disclose their hidden biases but how many teachers would recognise blondeness and patriarchy as biases?

    Like

    • March 22, 2021 at 8:06 am

      Writing dystopias is also a way to escape the present, I imagine.
      About the price to pay to be published: see my answer to Lisa’s comment. I’m not convinced by that.

      I think that most teachers, with their degree in literature would see it. And most of them are women…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Alain
      March 22, 2021 at 1:38 pm

      Barjavel always had a problem with his books.
      His knowledge of science was zilch.
      Ravages is a good example.
      If « electricity » stops to work, your body stops to work as well.
      This is why the book is a good read, but must be taken with a grain of salt.
      He was a visionary.
      The second part of « Ravages » is unreadable, some christian influenced delirium.
      But he was prescient about « La Mère ».

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Alain
    March 22, 2021 at 2:18 pm

    When I read « Ravages » as a kid, the thing that I liked most was that at last artificial meat was available, cheap, and tasted good
    If I remember well it was produced from chunks that Barjavel called « La Mère ».
    Chunks of various meats growing continuously from original samples maintaining taste, texture etc.
    And now that we are closer to the goal of producing artificial meat undistinguishable from the thing that requires enormous ressources, people still want the original.
    It’s weird.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 23, 2021 at 12:17 pm

      Personally, I’m not too fond of industrial food. I’d rather stop eating meat than eat the industrial kind.
      But yes, I was impressed by Barjavel’s imagination on that part.

      Like

  6. March 22, 2021 at 4:46 pm

    The dystopia is humanist; the utopia is reactionary. H. G. Wells makes exactly the same move in In the Days of the Comet (1906), ending with a Year Zero utopia that includes the destruction of all buildings, art, and books. Humanity starts over, and perfection is attained. I think Wells was being ironic, but I am not sure.

    I picked up Ravage many times in France. It always seemed to difficult, too long, I don’t remember. I am not surprised that it is also too sexist. Much American science fiction from the same period also includes a lot of, what is a kind way to say this, adolescent boy fantasy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • March 23, 2021 at 12:21 pm

      Thanks, I’ll never be good with literary genre boxes.

      The sexist part I could have lived with if it had only been the imprint of its time. (Like in pulp for example) Here, it felt ideological, not just a man living in a pre-1970s society.

      Like

  7. March 23, 2021 at 12:16 am

    Hmm, it seems to have started off well and then go completely downhill. That last section does sound particularly distasteful.

    Novels set in the future can be fun if only to spot what they got right and what was totally wrong. I remember when I was young looking at comics which had everyone “in the future” wearing all in one lycra looking body suits and teleporting everywhere. At least Barjavel was pretty accurate with his predictions of skyscrapers and people not walking very far

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 23, 2021 at 12:23 pm

      That’s exactly how you sum it up.

      I was amazed by the first part and how spot on he was on many aspects and it was fun to read and see what the mind can imagine and what he couldn’t fathom. (Internet, for example)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. March 24, 2021 at 6:48 pm

    Ah, the blessing of Heavens to a race of males! And good Aryan stock too. And polygamy makes ugly girls grateful. And… WTF? Like you and many of the other commenters, I hope those schoolkids are able to see the massive problems in this new world that the writer seems to approve of. The early parts imagining the future from the past do sound fun, though.

    Like

    • March 25, 2021 at 9:24 am

      Yes, and see where it has gotten us. 🙂
      I need to find out how this book is taught in schools.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. buriedinprint
    March 26, 2021 at 10:08 pm

    How curious! Well, at least you can say it will remain a memorable read for you. It’ll be interesting to see what your daughter remembers about how it was taught by her instructor.

    Like

    • March 28, 2021 at 9:09 pm

      I will not forget it, that’s for sure. The ending was really disapointing, I didn’t expect that at all.

      Like

  10. April 1, 2021 at 11:55 pm

    Yes, I think we were asked to read classics way too early.
    Anyhow, thanks for reminding me of Barjavel, I so need to revisit him, especially Ravage

    Like

    • April 2, 2021 at 9:37 am

      To be honest, I don’t understand why this one is a classic. The style isn’t that literary.
      I’d be really interested to read your thoughts about Ravage.

      Like

  1. April 4, 2021 at 9:39 am

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