Pierre Bordage, L'ange de l'abîme 2005. Au Diable Vauvert. Pp. 560. ISBN 2846260664. €23.00.

Reviewed by Djibril

L'Ange de l'Abîme (Angel of the Abyss), the latest novel by prolific and fêted French science fiction novelist Pierre Bordage, is apparently the second in a trilogy, the first volume being L'Évangile du Serpent (Gospel of the Snake, 2002). This reviewer has not read the previous volume, but the book stands alone well; it seems unlikely that any of the protagonists appeared in the earlier novel. Indeed, important details are rehearsed periodically through the book, so that it reads almost like a serialised novel where a reader could join midway through and soon be up to speed. Far from being intrusive or patronising, this feature is reassuring in a story which is often episodic and occasionally discontinuous.

The action takes place in a future not too distant from our own time: we imagine a France some ten or twenty years in the future, when Europe has fallen under the sway of an intolerant, fundamentalist Christian, totalitarian, and brutal government which is engaged in a drawn out, incredibly bloody war against a united, fanatical Islamic world while the ostensibly neutral USA, India and China watch from the sidelines. In a blighted landscape of bomb-ruined cities and distrustful, mob-ruled villages where you can be lynched for looking a bit foreign or having an Arab name or ancestor, we meet Pibe, a thirteen year-old boy whose family have been killed by a aerial bomb, and who was recruited the same night by a gang of scavengers and thieves, and Stef, the beautiful, sixteen year-old independent scavenger who becomes his guardian angel. Alternate chapters tell of our heroes' attempts to survive in this ravaged Europe while evading the Legionaries of the Archangel, the religious military police who keep order with an iron fist and a ready trigger-finger.

For Europe is ruled in practice, if not in theory, by the Archangel Michael, a former neo-fascist Christian militant from Rumania who has risen to the top of a vast army of fanatics and swept to power across Europe—to the delight of the Vatican. While the Archangel takes refuge in his bunker deep beneath the Carpathians, a fundamentalist law holds sway over Europe: all non-Christians and non-whites (called "Osamas") are expelled or exterminated; women are subject to the often violent will of their husbands, and confined to their homes, to breed as quickly as possible; all boys are conscripted at the age of sixteen and sent to the hellish eastern front, where most die in the fruitless trench warfare that has been raging for ten years. There is no end in sight to this living hell that the world has become.

The extremely dystopic future that Bordage presents is horrifying and convincing in equal measure, although sometimes too extreme and unrelenting to swallow. There are few redeeming characters, little reflection or effective resistance, no hope even that things are better elsewhere, as the rest of the world seem to have their own problems too. But the details and the flavour of this poisoned Europe are beautifully delivered by means of the background landscape and the incidental characters. Every other chapter, between the adventures of Pibe and Stef, is a free-standing story, each connected by a single character or event, each told from a new point of view. This chain of stories occasionally becomes strained by tangential connection or coincidence, and at times is a weak counterpoint to the more engaging story of our heroes, who are often left at a cliffhanger while we wait for their chapter to return. But ultimately these stories are what show us the true variety of human reactions to this terrible world, and the true horror of the destroyed lives that populate it.

The first independent tale in the chain is of a family who have fled the city for the relative peace of the countryside, only to be persecuted by the villagers because the mother is of Moroccan descent and the children of mixed blood: a mob attacks their house, and the father holds them off as long as he can, dying to cover his family's escape. The second story is linked by one of the men in the lynch mob, who returns home drunk to beat and rape his wife; while he is at work, his wife joins a charitable group who try to improve the lot of women, secretly providing contraceptive pills, for example, and planning occasional recreational trips to the city. The third story is of an invalid veteran of the eastern front who works as a gigolo, hired to perform public sexual acts at parties for groups of women from the country. The fourth story is about a devoutly Christian cop nicknamed "John Wayne", who is leaning on the pimp who organises these parties and planning a sting on some politicians who take part in muderous, snuff orgies with stolen Osama children; the story ends with the tired and disillusioned John Wayne's suicide. A second cop is assigned to take over where John Wayne left off, a corrupt, filthy rich man with a beautiful, plastic wife and a lot to lose if he fails. A novelist attends one of the evil orgies out of curiosity, and is caught up in the sting. A young police officer charged with interrogating the novelist loses control and beats him to death during a torture session, and as a result is promoted to commandant of a death camp for Osamas. A young girl in the camp, barely surviving the inhuman, unsanitary, and barbaric conditions is cornered by a gang of feral inmates, and is only at the last minute rescued from rape and torture by the new commandant, who has taken a shine to her. The affair between the commandant and the Osama girl is doomed, as they are both unwilling to compromise their convictions (hers for her people, his to mass-incinerate as many of them as possible) because of their love for each other, and so the commit joint suicide. And so on and so on. About half of these stories end with the death of the protagonists, at least five of them by suicide. Most of them are tragic, and have managed to make you care.

In the main story, we see the world through the eyes of the initially naïf Pibe, who has never known another world than this, and whose only perspective on his current life are his lost family and schoolfriends. He and Stef speak to each other in a mixture of contemporary French and Verlan—the youth slang/thieves' cant in which words are turned on their heads ('verlan' itself means l'invers, reversed), and so a cop (flic) is a "keuf"; a woman (femme) is a "meuf"; a crazy person (fou) is "ouf"; even Stef is nicknamed "Fesse" (buttock). (Some of this feels a little forced, but it has been a long time since this reviewer hung out in the banlieux, so perhaps is being unfair.)

On occasion the tone of the novel turns a little preachy; not so much when we are witnessing an atrocity, racial attack, or warcrime, as when a character takes voice and explains the history of the current state of the world. We are told no less than four times by different speakers (although Pibe is only told twice, and once by the surreal brothers Gog and Magog who spend their lives surfing what little remains of the satellite network on the Internet and collecting their own shit in jars of alcohol) that the Balkan wars of the late twentieth century were but a rehearsal of this newest religious conflict; that Americans are partly to blame for polarising of the world in response to the 9/11 attacks, for attributing the crime to an "axe du mal" (axis of evil) rather than the complex global problem it represented; that the US was more than willing to provoke the Islamic world into forming a united front and allowing the Europeans to spend themselves fighting it, thus simultaneously ridding itself of an enemy and a developing rival, and reasserting its hegemony over the rest of the world, including a decapitated Asia (197-8). The story of the doomed novelist above is also an opportunity for a lecture on the topic of self-censorship (131-2).

Unlimately the dénouement and climax of the story is Pibe's coming of age, as we see through his eyes the true problems of the world and possibly even some of their solutions. This is a message of hope, as a young survivor, educated in a religious school, surrounded by repression and violence, with laissez faire parents, achieves a state of sublime peace of mind that even we in relative peacetime and luxury can only aspire to. This is partly Stef's influence: she is unflappable, both in the face of adversity and when witnessing injustice to others; "Some people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time," she shrugs. She teaches Pibe to kill, both in self-defence and out of other, less obvious necessity; she also teaches him to "cease to desire ... begin to live" (399), explaining that their new state of mind is an evolution, the "negation of religion", that they are the monstrous creations of the barbaric world they live in. It is an almost Nietzschean twist that it is only when Pibe loses his desires and his fear, his jealousy and insecurity, his morality and hesitation, that he becomes truly human.

If there is a message to this novel, however, it is neither religious, psychological, or philosophical. Rather, it is a warning, stark and unsubtle, of the fundamentalist, blind, and polarised earth that we are all too close to letting the leaders of the free world bring us into. It may be blunt, in-your-face, and partisan; it may preach more than it allegorises; and it may exaggerate for effect to the point of grotesqueness—but it is a message we should not ignore.

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