Published at the height of the Dreyfus affair, Mirbeau's novel is a loosely assembled reworking of texts composed at different eras, featuring different styles, and showcasing different characters. Beginning with material stemming from articles on the 'Law of Murder' discussed in the "Frontispiece" ("The Manuscript"), the novel continues with a farcical critique of French politics with "En Mission" ("The Mission"): a French politician's aide is sent on a pseudo-scientific expedition to China when his presence at home would be compromising. It then moves on to an account of a visit to a Cantonese prison by a narrator accompanied by the sadist and hysteric Clara, who delights in witnessing flayings, crucifixions and numerous tortures, all done in beautifully laid out and groomed gardens, and explaining the beauty of torture to her companion. Finally she attains hysterical orgasm and passes out in exhaustion, only to begin again a few days later.
Torture Garden begins with a 'Frontispiece'-introduction (and, yes, in the original French it's a 'Frontispice', too), a salon-gathering where, after a sumptuous meal, the assembled gentlemen -- "moralists, poets, philosophers and doctors" -- get down to discussing murder. One of them suggests: I genuinely believe murder to be the greatest human obsession, and that our every action derives from it ... If not entirely convinced, the others admit some obsession with the subject matter too -- or also, as one does, to: "the imperious voice of murder rumbling within me". Finally a man with a ravaged face speaks up, maintaining that: "the most atrocious crimes are almost always the work of women" -- and has the sad chapters from his own life to prove it, so he claims. Conveniently chronicled in writing, no less: he pulls out a roll of paper and proposes to read out his memoir of these troubled times -- Torture Garden, as he calls it. The novel proper then consists of the man's tale, told in two parts: 'My Mission' and 'The Torture Garden'. The first part begins harmlessly enough: twelve years earlier he had stood for office in national elections, with the support of a powerful friend active in politics, the opportunistic minister Eugène Mortain. But the narrator loses the election handily. Eugène promises he'll find something for him to do -- but the desired sort of position, "something respectably parasitical and administratively remunerative", proves harder than expected to organize. Then, with a ministerial crisis brewing, Eugène tells his friend: "you'll have to go away, to vanish ... for a year. Or two ...". At least Eugène can offer a comfortable way out: generous funds are available for a scientific mission in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka); all that's required of the narrator is to play at being an embryologist.All he has to do is research: "The protoplasmic initium of organised life ... or something of the sort". The alternative is studying penal administration in Fiji and Tasmania, and Ceylon definitely sounds more pleasant, so the narrator agrees to undertaking that mission. Or at least to head to Ceylon -- science be damned, he figures, dispensing with the suggested "impedimenta" (there are funds for two secretaries and two servants, as well as all sorts of expensive scientific instruments) as he has better ideas for the cash they're willing to hand over supporting the endeavor. He embarks on the Saghalien -- and finds aboard the intriguing, wealthy, and well-travelled Englishwoman, twenty-eight-year-old Clara: "the most extraordinary woman imaginable", as the captain tells him. Well, the captain does also warn: "she's a bit cracked ... but charming", but the cracks only really become visible later on -- but by then the narrator has fallen hard for Clara. There are already some hints aboard, but given some of the general conversation -- one man rapturously describes testing out his Dum Dum bullet on twelve lined-up Hindus (living of course -- "I'm not a dreamer -- I'm a scholar", he explains why he did not experiment on corpses ...) -- Clara's own raptures ("it would be sacrilege to fight against death ... Death is so beautiful !") barely even stand out ..... Eventually, the narrator confides to her that he's not the scientist he claims to be, and shows his true self -- and is amazed she doesn't hate him for who he really is. But then he still only has a vague idea of who she really is ..... Soon enough Clara tempts him to forget even about the Ceylon-ruse and travel on with her to China, promising:In China life is free, happy and boundless, free from conventions and without prejudices and laws. At least for us ... Liberty has no other limits than yourself ... nor love anything but the triumphant variety of your desires. He agrees -- more or less to his own damnation, and the second part of the novel then finds the narrator tortured by his love for Clara, as he realizes soon enough: She was a monster, and I loved her for being a monster. He escapes -- for two whole years ! -- from the seductive hold she has on him, but finds himself irresistibly drawn back to her. She tries to sell him on: "the only original and elegant distraction we have in this lost corner of China" -- feeding the Chinese convicts, as visitors can do every Wednesday -- but the reality of the Torture Garden she takes him to is a lot for him (and readers) to stomach. The narrator tries to reason with her:Is it really natural for you to seek sexual pleasure in decay and steer all your desires towards exaltation of awful spectacles of suffering and death ? But her philosophy is her way of life (and death) -- and as the narrator plunges into these depths with her it becomes quite a spectacle. The Torture Garden is an exquisite garden ("perhaps the most absolutely beautiful in all China") -- but spectacular natural beauty here lives side by side with the most violent excess. Except that torture here is also an art -- indeed one practitioner laments that standards are dropping and not enough people are taking pride in their horrible work any longer: "No more hierarchy, no more tradition ! Everything is going down the drain !" Mirbeau contrasts Sadeian excess with the physical beauty of the place -- nature at its finest, and at its rawest: And amid this floral enchantment had been raised scaffolds, crucifixion apparatus, violently-coloured gibbets, black gallows on whose summits frightful demon masks sneered; high gallows for straightforward strangulation, lower gibbets and machines for tearing the flesh apart. On the shafts of these torture columns a diabolical refinement caused pubescent calystegies, ipomea of Daorie, lophosperme and colocynth to coil their flowers, along with clematis and atragene. Birds practised their love songs there. It's intoxicating to Clara; less so to the narrator. And, despite some stomach-turning examples of what is carried out in the Torture Garden, all is not right here, even to the devotees. European influence has sapped Chinese tradition; the executioner who complains about lower standards notes that now:Everything makes death collective, administrative and bureaucratic. What it amounts to is that all the indecency of your progress is gradually destroying our beautiful traditions of the past.Only here, in this garden, do we at least try to maintain them as far as we can ... The critique of cultural and political imperialism perhaps goes under here in the sheer awfulness of the tradition that is being lost, but it's an interesting approach for Mirbeau to take. But then this is a novel which likes to undermine convention in the starkest ways -- so also in Clara's personal attacks when the narrator proves not to have the mettle, or the proper appreciation for her philosophy: "tuck up your mother, darling" she suggests to the: "sweet little insignificant good-for-nothing", before condemning the entire weaker sex: Men ! They don't know what love is, nor what death is, which is still more beautiful than love. They know nothing -- they're always depressed and weeping, or fainting for no reason, for mere nothings ! Huh ! Huh ! Huh ! Clara obviously has her issues -- yet the narrator's passion makes it difficult for him to escape this horrid world. Yet he has to wonder, too:Did she really exist ? I wondered about it, not without dread. Had she not been born from my debauchery and fever ? Was she not one of those impossible images that hatch out from nightmare ? One of those criminal temptations shaped through lust to inflame the imagination of sick people who become murderers and madmen ? Maybe she was nothing but my soul projected out of myself, despite myself, and materialised in the form of sin ? And yet, even when pushed to the extremes, he can't help but desperately think: "Clara was life, the real presence of life and the whole of life !" Torture Garden drips with fin de siècle decadence, but in its settings -- politically corrupt France, and a China just before the Boxer Rebellion -- Mirbeau takes on much more than abstract (im)moral philosophy. It doesn't quite work out: while it does gallop forward, the novel is an uneven read; Mirbeau doesn't lose the plot, but he's bit unsure of what directions to take it in at times. He matches de Sade in the descriptions of the worst excesses -- there are some very creative tortures here, described in horrible detail -- but without de Sade's monomaniacal focus some of this feels at odds with the rest of his tale. Clara is a typical invention of fin de siècle decadence, and she's an impressive if awful figure. Mirbeau's portrayal of passions is also typical for the times, with the narrator realizing just how awful Clara, and loving Clara, is, but unable to fight it even with his own arguments. Of course it's ridiculous, but there's decent entertainment in such overheated stories, too. The excess actually blunts some of the effectiveness of Mirbeau's arguments; a story of such extremes, it is difficult to take any lessons from it. Yet it's undeniably compelling, too, and even if the tale isn't ideally structured, Mirbeau impresses both with his writing and his imagination (in the latter case, not always for the best). Wild stuff indeed.- M.A.Orthofer, 19 March 2015 041b061a72