Trigger warning: suicide.
“The Other Side of the Mountain” is an enthralling adventure story the length of a novella, a seafaring tale that becomes a marooned island story before becoming revealed to be a Dantesque allegory of man’s vain quest for salvation.
The narrator is a young man of no distinction apart from the fact he signs up for a sea trek one drunken night, pressured by friends. That’s all the background there is and that is all Michel Bernanos needs to tell the man’s story.
The crew, determined to haze the greenhorn sailor, gives him his first contact with death by tying him to a rope and dragging him slowly under the sea, along the hull of the ship. The captain saves him from drowning, and the young man soon falls under the good auspices of the ship’s cook, an old sailor named Toine who’s seen the world.
Disaster strikes when the winds die out along the equator, stopping the ship dead in the intense heat. Left for weeks, the food spoils. The crew starves, becomes drunk on rum, and finally turns cannibal. The narrator and Toine take cover in the cabin as the crew eats the captain. Many weeks pass before the wind stirs again and leads them onward.
Toine leads the crew towards a star, picked randomly in the night sky, and they run into a great maelstrom. The crew is thrown overboard as the ship capsizes, leaving them deserted on an island with red skies, red sand, and strange cephalopods glowing beneath the water. Toine does not recognize the stars, hinting that they may not even be on Earth.
Toine and the narrator, who have already been through several ordeals, must now survive on an alien island. There are carnivorous vines that move like snakes and can suffocate you, carnivorous flowers that can swallow meat whole, mouths ready to devour swimmers in pools, petrified statues of human beings like those in Pompeii, and, most ominous, the enormous volcanic mountain at the island’s centre, which the moving trees bow to and from whence a steady, ominous heartbeat pounds.
The quest for survival draws them away from the macabre forest towards the mountain, on the other side of which Toine hopes to find “life.” The word is repeated several times. This suggests the search is allegorical—not just a quest for food and water but a quest for whether life exists beyond the terror and suffering we pass through—indeed, it’s about whether there is life beyond death itself. The mountain is death, the ultimate boundary which they must cross to be “saved.”
However, ever since running into a patch of flowers that shed their strange pollen, the two men have been acquiring a powdery, dusty residue that slowly transforms into clay and, soon, into harder rock. As they scale the pumice-like mountains, they become slowly transformed into minerals.
The journey up the mountain echoes Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy: up from the pit of hell towards the mountain of Purgatory. “I awoke with the impression of a long ascent from the bottom of a pit,” says the narrator. “Clinging in clusters to the mountainside, uncountable silhouettes of all kinds of beings seemed to continue their ascent toward eternity.”
However, unlike Dante’s vision of the divinely ordered universe, Michel Bernanos’s vision is salvation-less. Toine believes “our salvation lay on the other side of the mountain,” yet, when he reaches the top, his stony stiffness worsening, there is no salvation, only “more mountains soaring toward the red sky.” In the flower-like opening of the crater, he is stricken with terror at the sight of “a blue eye with an immense pupil” that floats “in the middle of the lake of blood”—the source of the mysterious island’s heartbeat. Toine and the narrator both remain encased in stone, lying on the mountain for centuries like statues of dead hikers.
Much could be said about this story, such as the plant life that defies scientific categorization and the uncanniness of the human statues that turn out to be those who were turned to stone by the island. However, what struck me most was metaphor about life and death.
Bernanos, the editors state, committed suicide in the Fontainebleau forest three years before the story’s publication. Although I’ve been trained as an English literature specialist not to read too much of the author’s biography into a work of literature, “The Other Side of the Mountain” seems to be haunted by author’s decision to kill himself. At a minimum, the themes about life, suffering, and death that permeate this story were issues with which Bernanos seems to have been grappling psychologically at the time. The story is about “the other side,” and whether there really is life beyond death—i.e., whether one can really escape suffering by choosing one’s moment to die.
“The Other Side of the Mountain” suggests there is no “other side”—that beyond the mountain of death is just another series of lifeless peaks, stretching on and on. There is no fertile, Edenic valley. If the narrator’s journey over the sea is taken as a metaphor for life, living, in the author’s vision, is suffering, a series of ordeals over which we have no more control than we have control over the tiller during a storm. We set out blindly, following randomly chosen stars, hoping they bring us to a safe haven—but really, what’s to stop the uncaring universe from bringing us to a hellscape of an island?
It is a bleak vision. Yet, the voyage is filled with the vigorous struggle for life, and with scenes of incredible, if deceptive, beauty, even if it only leads the protagonists to their inexorable, fatal end—death. Perhaps Bernanos thought the travails of all human beings on this earth was an ultimately futile fight to preserve life. In his vision, the world’s beauty only brings a temporary relief from the horror of it.
The biggest irony of all might be that the narrator does enter into an eternal life, in the end—he spends hundreds of years encased in stone, remembering only “the gentle touch of tears on a man’s face.” The kindness of fellow human beings, in this case his mentor Toine, is the only thing he does remember, an affirmation of the value of human compassion amidst the void. Perhaps such kindness is the only thing to give lasting comfort to humanity in this bleak world.
I feel the compulsion not to end this blog post on such a grim note; however, I am loathe to undercut or cheapen Bernanos’s vision, which is beautifully expressed. On a surface level, it is still an enthralling adventure story, not unlike the Merritt story reviewed earlier in this blog. (With the treatment of scurvy and cannibalism, Bernanos’s story also reminded me a great deal of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.)
Next week, I will be reading “The Salamander” by Mercè Rodoreda (1967).