IN terms of the legacy of French decadent literature, Le Jardin des supplices (usually translated as The Torture Garden, but also as The Garden of Evil), by Octave Mirbeau, is nowhere near as famous as Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours, or the verse of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, or Verlaine—and it probably shouldn’t be. As a whole, the novel often suffers from clunky construction, thematic over-repetition, and occasional dead-ends and subsequent restarts to the narrative which can be jarring.
Perhaps the 1899 novel’s charms would have been better appreciated by the reviewer if given (to this reader, at least) a more pleasing translation—there are many great lines on show in this edition by the publisher Bookkake (above, interestingly financed in part by Arts Council England) of the 1929 rendering by Alvah Bessie (left), but certain sections seem confused or stodgy. (There is another translation by Michael Richardson, published by Dedalus, originally printed in 1990, but one has not laid eyes on it as of yet.)
I was less than happy with the editing: participles are mixed up (“find” instead of “found”, and so on), dialogue is often not separated from descriptive paragraphs, and there are a lot of both random and missing speech marks, colons, semi-colons, and full stops, along with mis-capitalisations. Either which way, the book is ripe for a re-translation and editing by the likes of Penguin—if they’ve done so for de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom and Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, then why not Mirbeau (below) as well? Really, The Torture Garden sits better with those works than it does with say Huysmans’s quadrilogy about Durtal, or Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.
The novel is split into three parts. The first and briefest, “The Manuscript”, concerns an evening’s discussion amongst “men”, by which the narrator means real men, or men of privilege and power: “moralists, poets, philosophers and doctors”. The discussion turns to the subject of murder, upon which the participants come to the general consensus, with a callousness towards all accepted social norms, that there is something natural and inevitable about murder, but a man with a “ravaged face”—our true protagonist—is insistent that murder has a distinctively feminine cause and quality: “Why, the most atrocious crimes are nearly always the work of women. It is she who conceives them, organises them, prepares them and directs them. […] Woman possesses the cosmic force of an element, an invincible force of destruction, like nature’s. She is, in herself alone, all nature!” In order to offer some proof towards his assertion that woman is “the matrix of death”, the unnamed raconteur unfurls a manuscript conveniently on his person, which constitutes the remaining two segments of the book.
The second part, “The Mission”, tells of the man’s spoilt upbringing in the moral and economic corruption of the mid-to-late 19th century French bourgeoisie. His high status comes to a sudden end with the death of his conniving grain merchant father, forcing him to seek employment from his old friend Eugene Mortain, a minister of the newly minted yet already rotten-to-the-core French Third Republic.
To earn his keep, the narrator-protagonist effectively becomes a bagman for Mortain’s various money-making and espionage schemes, a network of corruption so colossal and Byzantine that the politician allots an amount of the proceeds to keeping a large section of newspapers happy and unobtrusive. Mirbeau, an anarchist in the traditions of Proudhon and Kropotkin, and a virulent cynic, uses the machinations of Mortain to attack the emptiness of French politics and the obsequiousness of the press in a manner that feels disturbingly familiar: “He also possessed that marvellous faculty of being able to speak for five hours and on any subject, without ever expressing an idea. His quenchless eloquence poured forth ceaseless and indefatigable… The parliamentary reporters recognised in him their own universal incompetence, and patterned their written jargon after his spoken gibberish.”
Eventually though, Mortain’s scheming catches up to him, and in order for him to achieve a political promotion is forced (but also relieved) to send the troublesome narrator to
Sri Lanka on a bogus research expedition, where he is to pretend to be an embryologist searching for the “primordial cell” (he in fact plans to spend his entire time there in a private harem in Colombo).
While on the boat going through the Suez and then the Indian Ocean, the narrator engages in several conversations regarding the nature of murder and man-hunting with several upper-class reprobates, drawing the attention of the wealthy Englishwoman Miss Clara, who is said to live in a palace in Canton. The narrator, spending evening after evening with her, falls madly in love, and abandons his mission to go live with her in China. She however indirectly warns him what that would mean: “I’ll teach you terrible things…divine things…you’ll know at last what love really is! I promise you’ll descend with me to the very depths of the mystery of love…and death! […] Poor baby! You thought yourself a great debauchee…a great rebel! Ah! your little remorse…do you remember! And now your soul is as timid as a little child’s!”
Unfortunately, he does not heed her admonition, and the beginning of the third, largest, and final segment, ominously titled “The Garden”, opens several years later, after the narrator grew tired of Clara’s cruelties, and fled with a group of missionaries to Annam (the French protectorate in what would become Central Vietnam), before inexplicably returning to her in her new palace: “I was not able for a day, nor for a minute, to cure that frightful poison that woman had injected into my flesh…I realised that the very thing that held me to her was the frightful rottenness of her soul and her crimes of love. She was a monster, and I loved her for being a monster!”
The device of jumping ahead several years is quite jarring, as is the continuous mention of Clara’s sister Annie, an unseen character who has died in the lapsed time period. Structurally, it is the novel’s weakest element.
Happy to have him back, Clara decides to immediately make him uncomfortable by dragging him to the local bagnio—a word loaned from the Italian, which tended to mean prison in East Asia, but could also mean brothel or bathhouse; an extraterritoriality in connotation which was doubtlessly intended.
Mirbeau’s depiction of 19th century Imperial China is somewhat like Gilbert and Sullivan’s depiction of Japan in their comic opera The Mikado—less to do with the actual country and its culture, and more of a grotesque and thinly-disguised parody of Western society and its flaws. Mirbeau has the Chinese overrun by white people mixing native dress with European wares, while engaging in a brutal and primitive if well-gilded lifestyle, the rivers openly dominated by pirates, commoners buying and selling rotten meat and fish (“There is none rottener!” proudly cries one merchant of his stock), and even chopping up and selling chunks of human corpses in “die booths”, customers fighting over the best cuts.
By the time they reach the bagnio, wherein the “Torture Garden” operates, the narrator has been thoroughly re-traumatised, not that it appears to faze Clara, who seems to enjoy his mental suffering, especially as she has purchased a hamper of human meat to feed prisoners with.
As they enter, for it is the only day of the week whereupon visitors are free to come at will, the couple find themselves in a dark corridor occupied by literally pilloried inmates, to whom visitors throw food as though they were visiting animals in a zoo. In a cage, Clara finds her favourite prisoner, a poet, driven insane by starvation and confinement with half-a-dozen other ravenous and crazed men, whom she attempts to feed a prime cut of flesh.
When they pass through the corridor and into the garden’s centre, Clara compares it negatively with Kew Gardens: “a far cry away from the pure beauty of the Chinese model. According to Clara, that exquisite attraction is lacking which is implied by the mingling of torture with horticulture, blood with flowers.”
Clara’s maintenance of an emotional barrier between herself and the suffering, also present in the other visitors (other than the narrator), puts one in mind of the terminal patients ward in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, wherein children are given daytrips with toys and treats amongst the dying to desensitise them to the inevitability and the physical and emotional misery of death. In the Torture Garden, beauty and death are one, and this is, as Clara maintains, a natural product.
When the narrator brings up the monsters that “nature” can create, Clara answers him: “But there are no monsters! What you call monsters are superior forms, or forms simply beyond your understanding. Aren’t the gods monsters? Isn’t a man of genius a monster, like a tiger or a spider, like all individuals who live beyond social lies, in the dazzling and divine immorality of things? Why, I too then–am a monster!” This absolutist and self-serving philosophy does not sustain her for very long though.
Most of the rest of the section is the narrator and Clara walking about the grounds of the Torture Garden, the latter attempting to explain the various horrors while berating European sensibilities (Christianity in particular against “the charming divinities and adorable myths of naïve religions”) and claims to supremacy, although she remains pessimistic in that China will soon by “devoured” by the “two scourges” of British imperialism and Catholic missionary work (even when being anti-European, you can tell that Mirbeau is still a late 19th century Frenchman).
The couple eventually meet a cheerful torturer, cleaning his devices of distress in the sun, who in perfect English bemoans the lack of skill of his contemporaries, and wishes to return to the old ways: “Ah, we are a lost people, a dead people! Let the Japanese come; we can no longer resist them. Farewell China!”
As the blood pools about them, free range peacocks pecking at torn flesh on the ground, the stench overwhelming in the dying light, both characters essentially have mental breakdowns, Clara’s front of strength dissipating, and begging the narrator that they leave. As they quickly depart, the narrator has an epiphany: “Ah, yes! the Torture Garden! Passions, appetites, greed, hatred, and lies; law, social institutions, justice, love, glory, heroism, and religion: these are its monstrous flowers and its hideous instruments of eternal human suffering. What I saw today, and what I heard, exists and cries and howls beyond this garden, which is no more than a symbol to me of the entire earth. I have vainly sought a respite in quietude and repose in death, and I can find them nowhere.”
As much as Mirbeau’s anti-imperialism is central to the book, it has to be properly contextualised—the Chinese, such as the nostalgic torturer, reflect the same arrogant and senseless attitudes as the Europeans to a large extent, and Clara’s claims to supremacy are as hollow as a European chauvinist’s, for the scale of Mirbeau’s condemnation covers the whole of human endeavour. The author extends beyond a critique of Western civilisation to a critique of human existence that the likes of Arthur Schopenhauer and David Benatar would be proud of.
Anti-coloniality and political cynicism is but a gateway to Mirbeau’s expression of an existential and social nihilism—contra Marx, the heart of a heartless world cannot be found in religion or in any other ideation. Mirbeau’s real target is philosophic idealism and its reliance on sublimation and abstraction, which the novelist Tom McCarthy points out in his introduction to the book, and which he suggests anticipates the thought of later French writers such as Georges Bataille.
It is obvious that Mirbeau (left, in later life) in laying out his philosophy is both emulating and answering Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, with the latter having made a storm in France through the 1890s—to quote Nematollahy : “Nietzsche was widely read and appropriated by French writers and thinkers to such an extent that by 1900 they could claim him not as German but as ‘French’.” However, whereas Nietzsche hoped for an elite of mankind to arise out of the crisis of modernity, overcome the weaknesses of the nihilistic “Last Man”, and advance to a higher stage of cultural and biological evolution, and while Dostoevsky hoped that man would accept his fate and embrace a quiet Christian love against the violent and chaotic modern world, Mirbeau sees no hope in anything. The sum of mankind is brutality and domination; the ends of philosophy are not life but negation, not flourishing but anti-
natalism, if not a form of efilism (the belief that all biological life, human or otherwise, is immoral, for life must entail pain and suffering).
The dream logic of the book is apparent towards the end: the couple arrive on foot, and yet at the dock of the bagnio there is a barque waiting for them. As they sail down the river Clara goes into a state of shock and her odd boatswoman sails them to a “flower-boat clamorous with music and excitement”, upon which a horde of dancers are worshipping phallic idols.
Clara makes a temporary recovery and declares to the narrator “Never again!” before slipping into a deep sleep, but the boatswoman is unconvinced, saying that she will accompany them from the Torture Garden the week after, and the week after that, and so on until she dies: “nothing will be changed.” Mirbeau’s all-absorbing fatalism draws the narrative to an uneasy end.
In spite of its issues, the novel remains notorious, and its depiction of brutality is still effective and visceral—although a bit dulled perhaps in the age of film directors like Peter Jackson (think Bad Taste (1987)) and Eli Roth (in my view, simply bad taste). Its philosophical conclusions are perhaps its real horror, and are still worth the consideration of the mindful reader of the macabre. Its position in the history of pulp fiction is also solid, as one can see the Garden’s influence, direct or otherwise, in subsequent weird literature, from Sax Rohmer’s tales of Fu Manchu to Robert Bloch’s early short story “The Mandarin’s Canaries”.
Mirbeau, Octave; Bessie, Alvah (trans.). The Torture Garden. (2007). Bookkake, London
—McCarthy, Tom. “Introduction”.
Nematollahy, Ali. “Nietzsche in France 1890-1914”. The Philosophical Forum, Vol. 40, Issue 2, Summer 2009. pp. 169-180