What Became of the White Savage is based on a real-life incident. How did you find out about it and how did the character of Narcisse form in your mind?
I first heard of this story when I was living in the South Pacific, in New Caledonia about twenty years ago. I don’t remember exactly how I became aware of it, maybe from an article in a local paper.
There were only two places in the world where this tale was known: St. Gilles Croix-de-Vie, the village in the Vendée on the Atlantic coast of France, where Narcisse was from; and in Australia, where it was one among many tales of castaways told in maritime circles. But this particular story stood out from the others: its radical nature made it unique. And from Sydney, I suppose it must have made its way to Noumea.
I had forgotten all about it until one evening in 2009. At the time, I was Director-General of the resort of Val d’Isère. I was gazing at the snow-covered landscape, and probably, as Octave says, feeling nostalgic for the skies of the Pacific, when the memory of it came into my head. And I started to write.
Narcisse came to me of his own accord: his character and life story revealed themselves to me just as they do to the reader, as the story progressed. For novelistic reasons, I changed several details, such as the year the events took place, the young sailor’s age, the circumstances of his being abandoned. It wasn’t too difficult to imagine the experience of a terrified young sailor. But describing him after his return, filtered through Octave’s point of view, was more of a challenge.
The novel begins with a straightforward narrative but in fact, more than half of Narcisse’s story is told in the form of letters written by Octave de Vallombrun. Why did you decide to tell the story this way? Is Octave based on a real character?
Once I’d written the first chapter – Narcisse’s first three days on the beach – I realised that maintaining that intensity to describe the days that followed would not be so easy. So I thought I would describe the first three days of Narcisse’s return to our world, as a sort of mirror image of those days on the beach. And to make sure the reader would immediately realise that we had jumped forward in time, I started to write a letter in the style of the period. Then I came back to Narcisse on the beach, and so on. I didn’t try to make each letter answer each chapter exactly. The trajectories of two stories naturally echo each other.
I didn’t have an exact model for Octave, although characters such as Octave, honest men who are curious. . . and wealthy, appear frequently in 19th century literature. Octave’s personality is revealed gradually through his letters. I was really interested in the change he undergoes – from his initial well-meaning certainty to breaking completely with his original way of thinking. I realised after I’d finished that he was more or less a contemporary of Darwin, Marx and Freud, thinkers who took the sciences of their time – natural sciences, economics and medicine respectively – saw their limits and completely rebuilt their foundations. Octave sets out to do something similar. . . without success.
So, in the real story, there is, I’m sorry to say, no Octave. Very few people were interested in this poor sailor, let alone in his memories of faraway Australia.
Narcisse spends seventeen years living in the Australian bush with the tribe that takes him in. Are the people you describe based on any particular Aboriginal tribe? How much of this story is based on historical events?
There were at least two potential pitfalls in telling this story: 18th century notions of the “noble savage”, and 19th century attitudes towards “inferior races”. (To say nothing of 21st century notions of political correctness!) And what’s more, in the book we only see the tribe indirectly, from two points of view: through the fears of the sailor whose dream is to escape; and through Octave’s enquiries as he examines Narcisse’s strange behaviour in search of information.
I’ve always been interested in anthropology, particularly with regard to the Pacific, but I’ve never studied it formally. I could have spent years studying the Aboriginal cultures of Cape York; such an academic approach would have been both interesting and legitimate. But I didn’t try to do that. I’ve said elsewhere that I chose not to out of laziness. Which is true, but there’s more to it than that. The reality of Narcisse’s story is so powerful that the more I learned about it, the more I risked constraining my imagination. I was in danger of being crushed by the weight of reality. I had to put it aside.
So I gave the tribe characteristics borrowed from different cultures around the Pacific – a sort of collage or marquetry picture. Every behavioural trait had to call into question notions that are fundamental to our culture: ideas of private property, sense of community, time, interpersonal relations, power relations. . . The people of the tribe are described as having complex social and family structures, oral traditions, rites, sophisticated geographical knowledge and understanding of their environment, and so on. And at the same time, women’s position in the tribe leaves much to be desired, tensions exist, and so on.
With this in mind I avoided using the word Aborigine and used the vocabulary employed at the time the novel takes place. My “savages” are not real. But I hope that they are believable.
What Became of the White Savage is your first novel, but you have a long career in government administration behind you. When did you start writing and what made you decide to write this novel when you did?
Actually, I’ve always written novels. I wrote the first one when I was seven – it was three pages long. I fear it’s definitely lost and gone! And later, I wrote legal articles, non-fiction books, and two or three novels that were refused by publishers, probably because they were no good.
What Became of the White Savage enjoyed phenomenal success in France, which came as a great surprise even to my publisher. It’s been translated into Korean, Arabic, Croatian, German, Italian, and now into English, soon into Farsi. Above and beyond the story of Narcisse’s adventures, the book suggests that the only happy time in Narcisse’s life was when he lived with the tribe. I think readers today have a deep nostalgic yearning for an elsewhere, that other place they’ll never find.
Since then I’ve written two more books and I’m working on a fourth. I must confess I have a soft spot for the terrifying story of Narcisse Pelletier . . . It’s a novel that can be read by a seventeen-year old as an adventure story, but really it’s more of a conte philosophique – a philosophical tale, with few characters and a straightforward plot, in which readers can find, if they so wish, some reflections on our current perceptions of identity and relationship to other cultures.