“The weight of the old world is stifling, and trying to shovel it`s weight off your life is tiring just to think about. The constant shuttling of opinions is tiring, and the shuffling of papers across desks, the chopping of logic and the trimming of attitudes. There must, somewhere, be a simpler, more violent world.”
~~ Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety ~~
A simpler, more violent world was out there for those with the patience of a spider, and a will of iron to push it`s agenda through the moral barricades of liberal sentimentality. Hilary Mantel`s, A Place of Greater Safety follows the fortunes of three young friends, Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins, as they search for direction and purpose to their humdrum, middle class lives; initially trying to ride the wave of popular discontent at an incompetent government, but later, as their collective strength of purpose propels them to the forefront of the opposition, the wave becomes their beast to govern and direct; to crash and burn the aristocratic elite and replace it with a cleaner, socially elective model to stand for the people`s rights. But first, blood needed to be spilled to achieve political nirvana. It was a choice which had always been there, simmering on the back-burner; liberty could only be achieved through the forcible, and permanent removal of those who were a roadblock to progress.
“This was an idea peculiar to Camille, Maximilien thought, that the worse things get, the better they get. No one else seems to think this way.”
Finally they did: when progress is slow, people look around for alternative means of propulsion; ideals receive a nip here, a tuck there, as reason is remodeled for changing circumstances, until the original, democratic intent, has morphed into totalitarian terror. All opposition is eliminated; discussion of options are off the agenda; the system is at constant war with itself to purge, and to keep minds away from thoughts that their lot has not changed for the better; the state has simply changed tags and personnel and given itself another name.
Mantel`s greatest strength is her descriptive style: it`s a long book, for a long subject, but gems of the highest quality periodically jump out at you, like a game of peek-a-boo; a memorable phrase or sentence which catches perfectly a person, or a moment is always around somewhere waiting to pounce and delight. She knows foreign parts well, and how to describe a place and time from having spent extended stays in southern Africa and Saudi Arabia; the lady has travelled further, and seen more, than perhaps most, and is reflected in her writings. The past and it`s denizens are not a foreign country to her, but real and corporeal.
“He looked the Prince up and down, like a hangman taking his measurements. ` Of course there will be a revolution,` he said. `You are making a nation of Cromwells. But we can go beyond Cromwell, I hope. In fifteen years you tyrants and parasites will be gone. We shall have set up a republic, on the purest Roman model.”
The novel is as bespattered with comedic moments as it is with blood: but there is also a deep darkness and evil which slowly pervades it`s way into the bones of the book; almost unnoticed, we sense that events have taken on a life of their own. The revolution had been for the best of intentions……Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite; but ideas come from human beings, and humanity can be so weak when faced with the raw reality of power. Compromises are made, directions changed; what was considered out of the question last month is now relevant and necessary – for the revolution to progress of course.
The characters we see have the frailty of humanity: they worry about their jobs, family and life in general; are they meeting the right people to get on in their careers? Earning enough money to feed and cloth the family and look good to society? Can they afford a little shopping expedition, or a trip into the fresh air of the countryside away from the stifling heat and stench of Paris? Camille wants his wife to look good, Danton wants to screw as much money out of the system as possible, by fair means or foul, to retire to a country estate, Robespierre is trying to evade the romantic advances of the vampish daughter of his landlord. And then they casually sit down in some quiet and elegantly stylish salon and ponder on how many opponents to eliminate and send to the guillotine. Young romantic ideals of political and social equality have been blurred and grown fuzzy round the edges by age, experience, and the reality of sustaining their influence and power at all costs. To achieve this, others have to die; tumbrels full of “enemies of the revolution” are led through baying mobs to be fed to Madame Guillotine, before being tipped unceremoniously into open pits, where, when it rains, hundreds of heads and bodies aimlessly float and knock against each other.
“Do you know Camille Desmoulins?” he asked. “Have you seen him? He`s one of these law-school boys. Never used anything more dangerous than a paper knife.”
He shook his head wonderingly.
“Where do they come from, these people? They`re virgins. They`ve never been to war. They`ve never been on the hunting field. They`ve never killed an animal, let alone a man. But they`re such enthusiasts for murder.”
Mantel is also a political writer with concerns, and it shines through in this novel. What could be more political than the French Revolution? It`s the behemoth of revolutionary, social and political upheaval. The novel reflects a time when everyone talked politics and was a self opinionated expert: the dead rise up to tell us so on every page; even as they know they are hurtling towards the end of their time on earth, we still hear their words, and see their actions, as if they have become no more than marionettes of flesh and bone. They created the stage upon which they struck like peacocks, but now have become poor players of someone else`s words. They cannot jump ship; loss of power means enemies remembering grievances, and verbal slights; to stand and grip the wheel for as long as possible, to merely extend your own life another week, is what all that youthful, hopeful, revolutionary zeal has boiled down to.
“Laclos thought, how about a one-way ticket to Pennsylvania? You`d enjoy life among the Quakers. Alternatively, how about a nice dip in the Seine?”
Hilary Mantel lived with A Place of Greater Safety for eighteen years; 900 pages of an obsession which still lives with her. She would like to write a novel about the revolution`s High Priest of Blood, Jean Paul Marat; the mentor of her book`s protagonists, and inspiration behind the Great Terror which murdered so many unfortunate souls on the high alter of political expediency and fear. But let us leave the subject with the last words of one of the ugliest men who ever breathed God`s air, the great Danton; his political dance with death come to an end, as he stood before the state executioner Sanson…………
“Show my head to the people. It`s worth the trouble.”