In occupied Paris in April 1944 Rene Daumal was working on what would come to be seen as his masterpiece. A visitor knocked at the door and he broke off mid-sentence in his fifth chapter. Terminally ill, he was unable to resume and died on the 21st of May. It was just a fortnight before the Normandy landings and he was 36 years old.
He'd rarely enjoyed long spells of good health. In his early twenties he suffered anaemia and headaches and after conscription he was soon discharged for sIight heart condition. It wasn't until 1937 that his brother Jack, said to have been all experienced climber, took him to the mountains.
This proved to be more than a breath of fresh air. It's hard to judge what standard of technical difficulty their excursions involved but some of his notes describe glacier travel and route selection through steep cliffs on what are clearly high though unnamed peaks. There's a strong sense from his letters that he felt inspired and invigorated by this new world. Unhappily, within two years an X-ray showed tuberculosis in both lungs and climbing was forbidden though mountain air itself was recommended. At that point France was overrun.
Now Daumal had the added anxiety that Vera Milanova, his wife, was half-Jewish. It was necessary that they move around and lie low. They holed up at Passy in the Arve valley, at Gavarnie in the Pyrenees, in the Mt. Pelvoux area in the Ecrins. They lived in serious deprivation and were sometimes separated when he had occasion to risk the journey back to Paris.
Despite all these difficulties his short life was massively productive. He was brought up in north-eastern France close to the Belgian border and the foothills of the Ardennes. At 16 he was one of a small clique of young students experimenting dangerously with drugs and drink and sublimely confident of its future as the next avant-guarde. By his early twenties he was in Paris editing a new review, Le Grande Jeu, and arguing with Surrealists and the Dada movement. His interests were widening. He was teaching himself Sanskrit and writing out a grammar for the language as he progressed. He went on to publish essays off a broad range of Western and Eastern thinkers and writers and to contribute to the Nouvelle Revue Francaise.
He became involved with followers of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff and worked as press agent for the Indian dancer Udi Shankar on a trip to America. A collection of his poems won the prestigious Jacques Doucet prize and he translated Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon and three volumes of Suzuki's writings on Zen Buddhism. He worked (possibly simply as proof-reader?) on the first eleven volumes of the French Encyclopedia. In 1938 Gallimard published
his novel A Night of Serious Drinking. This was entirely about the world we live in and it was the effort against which his final book, Mount Analogue, would stand in opposition.
The story so far. It seems right to tell this in enough detail to entice a reader, but not so much as to spoil surprises. Daumal's mouthpiece is a literary journalist whose name we learn later to be Theodore. In a playful spirit he's published an essay on the symbolic significance of mountains in world religions, their function as a ladder to another world. By some rather breath-taking leaps of logic he's concluded that somewhere on earth there has to exist a hidden mountain, higher than Everest, offering access to that world. He names it Mount Analogue since it must be the physical manifestation of those metaphysical dreams. Some three months after publication, forwarded by the review, he's startled to receive a letter from one Pierre Sogol (clearly, Stone Word). This reader has taken him seriously, having always believed in the possibility of an ultimate mountain, and asks the narrator to call on him to discuss likely companions for an expedition. Theo is initially dismayed at having what was offered as fantasy misread as a firm belief but then realises that in his own heart he feels that Mount Analogue must exist somewhere in the real world. Its base must be accessible to men. His wife, Renee, happens to share this conviction.
Sogol invites Theo to his apartment and immediately assumes charge of the enterprise. He says that he can see how to determine the position of the mountain and can understand why it's never been discovered. All they need to do is to select a team. They'll call them together and he'll explain how he's worked out the location. They agree upon a group twelve in number. A few days later the party is assembled, introductions are made and Sogol explains his infallible problem-solving method. This is to assume the problem solved and to deduce from the solution the necessary preconditions. (Daumal always handles scientific method tongue-in-cheek.) He's already certain that the mountain is in the South Pacific, concealed by a space-warp. The candidates are then dismissed to be recalled a week later when he'll let them have more detail.
They re-convene and, as expected, some letters of withdrawal have been received. Sogol had anticipated this and had therefore not divulged too much. The expedition is now eight in number. Sogol, the narrator and his wife form a select core, though the "I" of the story gradually becomes "we" as time passes. The five others are treated with amused affection. There is an English mountaineer, sailor and doctor called Arthur Beaver, an expert on high-altitude flora and fauna. He immediately puts his yacht, 'The Impossible', complete with crew, at the service of the party. There is a Russian of Finnish origin, Ivan Lapse, who is an authority on world languages and can speak three or four himself. He has also written a book on communication by gesture. There is an American painter of mountains, Judith Pancake. She doesn't consider herself an artist and her aim is simply to have souvenirs of her travels. There are two Austrian brothers, Karl and Hans, whose surname is never offered. They are 'specialists in acrobatic ascents', brilliantly fit, with grips of steel and eagle eyes. One does mathematical physics, the other is into Eastern metaphysics.
Sogol now explains how he's worked out Mount Analogue's position, why it's invisible to men, and exactly how the space-warp must be penetrated. And eventually the expedition sets out, having told friends they intend to explore islands in the South Pacific. Arriving at the calculated point of entry they wait patiently for days, weeks. Finally in a dramatic passage, a sudden chaotic turbulence of wind and water, they're drawn through to find themselves at rest in a calm sunny bay with the small fishing village of Port o' Monkeys at its head and glaciers and cloudy summits visible high above.
It seems that their arrival was expected. They're towed in by a fleet of ten-man canoes and led to a room in one of the houses, where a man in guides' clothing is waiting to receive them. He speaks French, but with a little awkwardness. They learn later that all arrivals on the island find themselves at ports where their own language is used. Authority is apparently exercised by the Corps des Guides who assume all administrative functions in turn and control the police. (Much later, Theo will wonder why police are needed on the island.)
This representative explains what's expected of the team. They'll have time to settle in and must then start the ascent. They're given a sack of tokens as an advance against necessary provisions and alternative methods of repayment are explained. Rather than gold, the currency is based on a particular type of crystal found on the mountain, a 'peradam'. This is a spherical crystal with a refractive index so close to that of air that it's hard to spot. If they can't discover a sufficient quantity of these they must find work in the village. Someone asks what happens if a team can't find either the crystals or gainful employment. The guide asks what happens to hens that don't lay eggs. Optimistically, they all make pouches to hold their peradams.
They're already aware that they're not the first to reach the mountain. In the port itself a strange assortment of vessels lies rotting, 'Phoenician barques, triremes, galleys, caravels, schooners', though there are fewer from modern times. They're informed of the elaborate protocol for all attempts and they have no choice but to comply. A head porter will accompany them on the lower stages and a guide will take them a little further. For the first stages they'll find crude shelters, later they'll have to set up camps. There'll be parties above them and they'll find that those ahead have left provisions for them. Similarly, they must leave supplies for those who follow. They must systematically ferry an enormous quantity of baggage up to the higher stages to support a lengthy attempt. They've already discovered that much of what they have must be abandoned. Through physical laws they can't understand, cameras, compasses, torches, aneroid, none of their sophisticated scientific instruments will work on this mountain.
Delayed by prolonged rainfall they explore the coast in both directions. On one on these excursions, still on the beach, Sogol announces that he is relinquishing his role as leader. The announcement made, he notices a small peradam at his feet. The porter and donkey-driver accompanying them are awe-struck. To discover one at this low level is unprecedented and must be a good omen. At this point, however, we'll abandon the account.
When Daumal died his project was already quite widely known, the first chapter having appeared as early as 1940 in the review Mesures. The war, however, had yet to pass through Europe and then France had to rise from the wreckage. It wasn't until 1952 that Gallimard published the unfinished text. It appeared in Britain in 1959 in Roger Shattuck's translation and in America in 1960. Various publishers reissued it and there was an attempted piracy. In 1981, working from Daumal's notes and letters, Gallimard issued a definitive edition and new translations and commentaries continue to appear.
The response of critics and readers involved baffled searches for comparisons and these searches had to reach outside French literature. Was it like Don Quixote or Gulliver's Travels or Pilgrim's Progress? Did it owe something to Voltaire or Poe or Jules Verne or Blake? Really, it wasn't like anything else. Unless, that is, it owed something to Alfred Jarry's 'pataphysics', the science of imaginary solutions, which would lead one day to the Theatre of the Absurd. Daumal had once written a regular column under the by-line 'Pataphysics This Month'.
Presumably all readers speculate a little on how Daumal might have wound up his story or how they themselves might conclude it. He'd broken off in the middle of an expansive parable on ecology at a time when very few readers knew the word. But he did leave notes on what was to follow and these are severely restrictive. It would run to only seven chapters. Chapter Six would contain an account of the four dropouts from the original team who have decided to follow for base motives of their own. The final chapter would have the title "And you, what do you seek?". He also left notes which allow much more latitude and are sometimes contradictory.
For some readers the unfinished work is perfect as it stands. Others are downcast that the team hasn't yet got to grips with the real difficulties of the ascent. For myself, as commentator, I want some sort of resolution and I choose to take the story further. Of the infinite number of possible outcomes I'll offer my preferred ending. But I can't try to mimic Daumal's lucidity of style or his teasing humour. And I won't introduce any of his sometimes tedious parables. Adopting a more distant viewpoint I'll continue the account from well above his high point.
At last the moment comes when they have by-passed the ice-fall. A half-hour later they can see that they are on the floor of a gigantic cirque with similar passes at intervals all around the rim. Bafflingly, all the numerous summits appear to be of about equal height. Which is Mount Analogue? Where is Mount Analogue? They resolve immediately to traverse onto a nearby shoulder and establish a new Base. They set up this camp and then spend a tedious fortnight in ferrying up provisions. Finally the day comes when they have to discuss a strategy and it soon becomes clear that the party is not of one mind. In the event four projects are initiated. Sogol wishes to continue alone and won't reveal whatever plan he has. (They wake one morning to find his tent empty. They follow his footprints onto the lateral moraine but can trace him no further.) Pancake, Lapse and Beaver team up to attempt a reconnaissance of the cirque and to try to find a viewpoint from which a culminating summit might be agreed upon. She'll paint each summit, Lapse will try to communicate with any groups they come across, Beaver will inventorise rock types and any plants and wildlife existing at this altitude. Hans and Karl settle for the most difficult line on the most monolithic summit nearby: the hardest is always the right way to go. Renee and Theo elect to try the easiest nearby peak: when in doubt take the soft option.
It doesn't feel like a soft option. When they finally top out every other summit appears perceptibly higher. Dispirited they recuperate at Base, which is unoccupied, then set off for another apparently feasible peak. This costs them enormous efforts and on summiting they're depressed to see that their previous high point now seems to loom above them. Not halfway down the hazardous descent, still two days above the camp, they pause for a rest, bone-weary. They're tucked up against the rock wall of the couloir, safe from stone fall.
Theo looks at his wife. She's still a pretty young woman but her face is scorched, her lips are chapped. Her hair is tangled and unwashed. He remembers her as she was, in elegant silk dresses and high heels. He thinks that there should be a name for this predicament, an activity in which successes and failures, balance out. If I were writing my column, he reflects, I'd call it a zero-sum game. He puzzles over the fact that a flight of imagination in his wretched column somehow took real wings and landed them in this trap.
Images of cafe society on the Left Bank come to him and a tide of grief rises sourly in his throat. Renee looks at her husband. He's still a handsome man but his clothes are in rags, his beard is bushy and matted. She can see crumbs, food, trapped in it. A vision comes to her of Theo, a great entertainer, holding their friends spellbound with his discourse as he reflects on the arts and sciences. She looks at the savage scene around them. It's months since they've made love. She thinks: this is cloud-cuckoo-land, this is pie-in-the-sky. She bursts into tears.
Suddenly, passionately, they begin to speak their minds. The whole enterprise has been madness. They can't put the clock back but they have to escape. They have to escape! It becomes clear that they've both been thinking about it and each has ideas. The lassitude of the last few days disperses and they feel the germ of energy stir in their bodies.
At this moment Theo sees that Renee's attention has shifted slightly and she's frowning, staring at the rock face over his shoulder. He turns to see a fissure in the rock wall. There's something odd about the seam recessed inside it. Their heads seem to work sluggishly, through the altitude or just through exhaustion. A lode is exposed. Puzzled, Renee runs a finger down it and immediately a waterfall. of peradams cascades down and banks up against the boulder at their feet. They can't speak. They're the richest people in Port o' Monkeys though they're both thinking further than that.
Invigorated, they fill their depleted sacks with all they can carry. Two days later they're relieved to find that Base is unoccupied. They repack and set off hastily, leaving a note to wish their friends well and to say that they're calling it quits and returning to the village. With unremitting caution they retrace their route of ascent. Meeting ascending parties, they tell their story. Like many before them they've been daunted but they've found enough peradams to set up in business in the village. They're able to offload their kit onto the descending donkey and mule trains, keeping the sacks of coinage on their backs.
Back in the port they report to the Chief Guide who has no reason to doubt their account. The mountain weeds its clients out. He instructs them to exchange the peradams for tokens without delay. In their quarters they hastily conceal some before trading in the remainder at the exchange. Now they have a large quantity of tokens and they have documents that seem to be the equivalent of bankers' drafts. They can draw on them at any time. They can put the plan into action.
The plan isn't yet integrated but they work on it. They need a sea-going boat small enough for two to handle. They need a pretext for buying a boat. Therefore they must become fisher folk. Then they have to reverse and replicate the circumstances of their arrival. They ignore the big question of whether attempts to leave the island could be authorised or would be permitted since they think they know the answer and they don't want to hear what happens to failed defectors.
They visit the headland to the right and follow the cliff top for a mile to check observations Theo had made during the week of their arrival. After some searching he finds a large, almost uprooted shrub and detaches it. With difficulty they trundle it over the edge and from a rock they watch. It floats towards the bay entry faster than they can walk but they see it move away to cruise around the opposing headland. Confirmed: there is a continuous counter-clockwise drift presumably encircling the whole island. They must re-check that it never reverses. And they have no idea how big the island is, supporting a mountain higher than Everest.
They will need an unusual boat. The canoes of the natives are sturdy craft and they buy two of these. A boat-builder is commissioned to unite them as a half-decked catamaran with steering gear, a large cabin and a junk-rigged sail, a vessel never seen in these parts. This excites much more interest than they want but they're content to be seen as naive and eccentric, as well as wealthy. They can't paddle in and out as the natives do but they can amuse everyone by drifting with the subsidiary water circulation within the bay, making use of occasional light breezes when possible and hauling, a few fish out. Theo has a card up his sleeve. He's pinning his hopes on the fact that at dusk, without fail, a strange catabatic wind like a mistral or tramontane blows through the village and out through the bay for a solid hour.
Renee has been busy. She visits the Impossible from time to time bringing back oilskins, warm clothing, lifejackets, bigger fishing nets, ropes, sea charts, a solar still and a selection of the equipment which will not function here including compasses and a sextant. She makes pemmican and bottles a large supply of a juice made from a native fruit tasting rather like a lime. Removing the key from the concealed panel Arthur Beaver had shown them, she opens the yacht safe and takes out their rightful quarter of the expedition funds – American dollars, British pounds sterling, and French francs. Handling these last, she makes a silent prayer that the day will come when they will spend them.
They have allowed the natives to become accustomed to their habit of working late and occasionally sleeping aboard ship. The night comes when they're ready. They wait until the breeze reaches full strength and, showing no lanterns, they cast off. Sail spread, they break though the slightly confused water into the coastal drift. No more lights come on in the village but an anxious night follows. They know, as they pass rocky spur after spur, that any pursuit by land could not keep pace on the rough donkey tracks connecting succeeding inlets and settlements. They start to keep watches, have spells in conference, but by dawn they've begun to relax.
Their problem is simple. The compass can't tell them when they've reached the point where they must attempt the exit strategy. They assume that the day will come when, at sunrise, their craft can be lined up on the sun and there is no land to be seen in the forward quadrants to either side. Nevertheless, they're filled with anxiety each time they sail past an inlet with a village visible at its head.
Eventually they reach a point at which the escape clause is available. Providentially it's some distance past the last port, though they don't know how close it may be to the next. They're beneath high cliffs in a small bay in a promontory and they decide to have a trial run. Each day they lift anchor just before sunrise, lining the boat up awkwardly. Three days pass.
Afterwards, they try to reconstruct the stream of events and the proper sequence of their actions or responses. It had been like their arrival except that rather than being drawn into a horizontal abyss they'd been hurled out, expelled. Found wanting? First, Renee had looked back at the cliff behind them and had seen only a distant sea horizon stretching in all directions. Theo had stared in tense anxiety at the water before them and had realised that, miraculously, it was rolling in placid widely separated swells without even a breaking crest in sight. Renee had glanced at the net bag of peradams she'd hung from the mast and had seen that it was empty. (Had the peradams themselves unlocked the space-warp?) Theo had shaken a pocket compass repeatedly and had seen that it settled at a consistent angle to the sun.
Now they are on their own and the task before them is challenging. The course of the Impossible is plotted on the chart to the very point of entry to the island and the sextant will confirm their latitude. Unhappily, they can only make a wild guess at the breadth of Mount Analogue. Theo blesses Arthur Beaver and the lectures on navigation with which he'd entertained the team on the voyage out.
Their plan is to follow full advantage of the prevailing westerlies whilst avoiding the traps of the South East Trades on the one hand and the Roaring Forties on the other. After all, Theo keeps telling Renee, Polynesia was itself colonised as much by the accidents of sea voyages as by design. Men have crossed the South Pacific for millennia, he says, in outrigger canoes or, after shipwreck, on makeshift rafts.
They drop the sail and it fills. Now we can watch them as they recede to become a distant mote on the ocean. They're feeling slightly queasy and will be sea-sick for a few hours. They'll spend days shadowed by sharks and they'll be almost overturned by a careless whale. They'll be driven off course by contrary winds and will have to beat painfully back. Occasionally they'll lie on the deck at midnight looking at the Southern Cross and the magnificence of the night sky. Renee will announce that she's pregnant. They'll see fantastic displays of the aurora australis. They'll invent childish games: Mount Analogue, Mount Monologue, Mount Dialogue, Mount Epilogue, Mount Decalogue. They'll work on a cover story about the length of time they've been away. They'll try not to think about the friends they've deserted.
I can set your mind at rest. Finishing under a jury-rigged sail they'll make safe landfall in Chile, not far south of Valparaiso. They'll sell their curious boat for a knock-down price and dispose of their redundant equipment as best they can. Cleaned up, they'll move into a good hotel and enjoy the cafe life of the city until fully rested. They'll cross the Andes in comfort en route for Buenos Aires. (In passing, they'll see Aconcagua and they'll resolve, one day, in the Western Alps, to climb some modest mountains, mountains with accessible tops on them and equipped with comfortable refuges.) Finally they'll take passages back to France and to Europe over which,ominously,the shadow of war is beginning to fall.
Rene Daumal three days before his death.
Harold Drasdo 2010©First published in Loose Scree 2010