Chaos and Night
The Woman in the Dunes
“For years I have been keeping the Spanish Civil War at bay,” Henry de Montherlant wrote in his notebooks in 1938, “as I know how to keep things at bay. The reason is that I would become too involved…It is more important that I should finish Les Garçons.” Twenty-three years later the subject overcomes him. Having in the interim launched and (he says) finished a preeminent career as a dramatist, he turns in his new novel to the Spanish War, not only with perspective on the past but with the present posed against the past. Well rendered in English by Terence Kilmartin, Chaos and Night is concerned with a relic of the war, a Spanish anarchist, now sixty-seven, who has been exiled in Paris for twenty years. The old anecdote tells us that, when a Frenchman was asked by his grandchild what he had done during the Revolution, he replied, “I survived.” In effect, Montherlant examines this answer for his hero: to find out what survived and why and whether it was worth the effort.
Celestino Marcilla has an independent income, a twenty-year-old daughter, a passion for bullfighting (starved for a generation), a few fellow-exile friends. He writes cranky sweeping articles, some of which he sends to newspapers, a few of which are published, and many of which are typed by his daughter for his “archives.” He considers the approach of death. As part of his preparation, he not only plans his death-bed scene, with the proper furniture, he breaks with his few friends, as if subconsciously scrubbing himself free of the world in a ritual bath before the long journey. (“He was undergoing the last change of life, similar to the crisis of puberty in adolescents, or the flowering of the virgin into the young woman.”) As for his politics and philosophy, the fixed attitudes of twenty-five years ago have been abraded by the passage of time and the petrification of desperate obstinacy. His mind has become a cave of small winds, rustling the dry leaves of dogged anarchism and atheism, hatred of Franco, hatred of the Church and—especially—of the United States.
At this point, he is jolted by news from Madrid that his sister has died and that he must return to settle her estate. His daughter wants to accompany him, and against his premonitions, he permits it. The journey back is mixed with fear, excitement, loathing. Every moment in Madrid he expects arrest, although he has a visa. His daughter is just as charmed as he dreaded by the country, its manners, its religion, its political climate, everything he detests. He prepares to return to Paris as soon as possible. The day before his planned departure he goes to a bullfight; then in his hotel room he dies alone. Soon after, the police arrive with a warrant for his arrest as a political nuisance. On the back of his neck they find four wounds, like those a matador might inflict on a bull.