27 August 2010

"Planet of the Apes" by Pierre Boulle

I kinda wish I hadn't bought
the movie tie-in cover.
Planet of the Apes
Written by Pierre Boulle
Translated by Xan Fielding
128 pages
Cover Price: $0.60
Fifth printing

Remember when I bought Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  On the same rack was a copy of Planet of the Apes, and I thought for $2.00 it was high time I explored that world.  (I've seen Tim Burton's 2001 film, but still haven't seen any of the original movie series or television spin-off.)  I'd read Boulle's Bridge over the River Kwai before, but it's always hard to evaluate an author's style when you're reading a translation.

In this novel, for instance, I found the first 15 or so pages slow moving and the final 10 pages or so rushed; neither is criminal, but the combination--in a novel numbering a scant 128 pages--was disappointing.  Everything in between the slow opening and rushed conclusion, though, was genuinely interesting.  The premise, for the uninitiated, is that a journalist accompanies a pair of scientists on an intergalactic voyage to the Betelgeuse system.  Unlike, say, Star Trek, Boulle's intrepid explorers travel at less than the speed of light.  Suggested by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, the logic suggests that while centuries pass on Earth, the explorers would only feel the passage of a couple of years.

Upon arrival, they discover a planet strikingly similar to Earth (which they designate Soror, in allusion to its sibling-like nature).  To their surprise, though, man is in a primal state and the planet is dominated by apes.  Ulysse Merou is the narrator and point-of-view character; we see the world through his eyes and experiences as a captive who labors to impress upon the scientists studying him that he is just as developed and rational as they.

Is the book an acceptance, or a rejection, of Darwin's theory of evolution?  It's difficult to say.  Ulysse reverently mentions God at a few points.  The Atlantic Monthly review quoted on the back cover concludes that, "This novel is respectfully descended from Swift on one side, and Verne on the other."  Boulle puts Ulysse through quite an ordeal; he is instantly a character to whom we relate and for whom we root...but there is a pervasive sense that Boulle is winking at every turn.

The sexuality of the novel is also interesting; Ulysse is quickly attached to a human woman whom he names Nova.  There is no real communication between them; she lacks the capacity.  In captivity, they are  caged together and, in an act as much of resignation as desire--and shame--they copulate.  The real tension lies between Ulysse and his chimpanzee observer, Zira.  The interspecies attraction adds a tension beyond that of whether or not Ulysse will ever be more than a lab specimen, and I found myself confused; should I want to see man and she-ape unite?  I'm still unsure.  The novel wasn't the spectacle that the film was (certain iconic moments often referenced and parodied, for instance, were nowhere to be found).  Its relative simplicity actually made it more compelling; the scale was more plausible and therefore more identifiable to me as a reader.

I wish I'd kept up with my studies of French so I could read Boulle's original version without the filter of translation.  I found Planet of the Apes less simplistic than I found Bridge over the River Kwai, but it's difficult to say how much of the difference is due to the evolution of Boulle's craft and how much is due to the different translations.