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The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail

This is another of those books I hesitate to review because, while when it was published was well-received, it has since become classified as “racist, xenophobic, nativist, monoculturist, and anti-immigration, and worst of all, popular within far-right and white nationalist circles.”

It is, without a doubt, a dystopian novel, that is, a novel that explores a bad alternative future, as opposed to a Utopian novel, which imagines a more perfect future for the human race, or some segment of it.

In 1516, Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia, coined from the Greek “eu” (good) and topia (place), about a fictional island off the coast of South America where everyone lived in peace, harmony, and plenty. He was hardly the first to try to imagine such a world – Plato had written The Republic, and The Bible included The Garden of Eden. Certainly, there have been hundreds of books written before and since that were both Utopian and dystopian.

Many speakers and pundits on both sides of the political aisle, even those in the center, have claimed 1984 (originally, and properly, Nineteen Eighty-Four) as “their” prophetic book, filled as it is with themes of controlled behavior, Big Brother watching, and the sins not just of failing to use Newspeak, but even “thought crime.” If the degree of vitriol in our political discourse is any indicator, Orwell was onto something when he peered into the future (1984 was written in 1948) and envisioned his native country, the UK, as part of Oceania, one of three intercontinental superpowers who trade alliances and wars depending on which status best suits the all-powerful states. With the Internet, “fake news” and “fact-checking,” scrubbing people’s social media accounts of improper ideas and language, and the ability to manipulate images and video to serve a point of view, the idea of a Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) actively erasing unpleasant or undesirable events and statements, and throwing them down the “memory hole,” has a ring of the possible.

The Camp of the Saints, while objectionable on a score of levels, does envision a number of events that, in their own way, have begun to appear as reality, as caravans of immigrants have moved to more prosperous nations, and portions of cities have declared themselves “autonomous zones,” while demanding a wholesale change in how things are done, why, and how history is and has been recorded.

The title of the book comes from the Book of Revelations, the final (and sometimes disputed) book of the New Testament, which predicts the coming “great battle” for Earth and the souls of mankind. The verse from which the title is lifted reads: “And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them.”

Perhaps had he not chosen this title, the rest of the book might have been read with more forgiveness for exploring a question that should actually be considered: how do you blend highly disparate cultures when movement has become so rapid, and wealth so unevenly clustered?

In fact, it is a generous and good impulse that sets off the entire terrifying chain of events in the story. A group of priests working in India (in the 70s, a nation many saw as one of the most impoverished and suffering in the world) conceive of what they think is a kindly plan: facilitate the adoption of poor children by European parents so that they can be fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated. But when the demand for such adoption far exceeds the ability of families to adopt, the governments attempt to slow, or halt it. It’s too late. The desperate people of India now see this road as one to the “land of plenty” for not just their children, but themselves; and not a lucky chance, but a right. They commandeer ships, overloading them, and set out for their place in the world of the “haves.”

As the Armada makes its way toward the beaches of Europe, other people (and Raspail does, in a way we find inappropriate today, classify them as the “black and brown”) begin to become restive, and soon the flotilla of ships is joined by people marching up towards Europe from the south. The reaction of Europeans is as mixed as our own as we saw video of several thousand people per group, in repeated groups, making their way up from the south into the US – some of us utterly opposed to wholesale “invasion;” some of us believed it was their right as human persons to seek a better life; and some were completely at a loss, not knowing whether it was a threat or a promise. The same individual might have held each of these thoughts and feelings simultaneously, as well as wondered about the bigger problem of assimilation.

This is also one of Raspail’s themes. Assimilation is a two-way street. Historically – far in the past – assimilation was a challenge, but it happened, of necessity, at a slower pace. When the movement of a family from one place on the globe to another took enormous effort and a long time, fewer people moved at any given time. The receiving location wasn’t likely to be overwhelmed (though they may have felt they were; all our notions are relative), and those arriving weren’t competing with scores of others in their situation for opportunities in their new home. Because the new arrivals were a distinct minority, the pressure was on them to conform to the norms of the new land – though just about every culture to arrive in especially the US have brought with them elements of their lives that were adopted and enjoyed in their new home. But if you adjust the dynamics of a mass migration to Raspail’s era, the numbers create a problem.

Raspail doesn’t cower from the ugly side of the story: it’s the “white and privileged” versus the “brown and oppressed.” In the European nations, the residents line up predictably, with those nearer the bottom fearing their own precarious spot will be taken, and those nearer the top able to dive into their pity and humanity. But as the numbers begin to reverse, and the “white and privileged” become outnumbered, the Army and police are expected to manage the situation – and the political class worries about how to handle the public relations and retain power. Eventually, many of the Europeans organize themselves into protesters, who realize things are falling apart and begin to loot and riot, while others flee further and further north to escape the growing chaos. One of the most ringing lines in the book for me, watching what is occurring right now, was the statement of one of the sympathetic Frenchmen: “Let’s tear down this mess and start all over!”

The Camp of the Saints By Jean Raspail

published: 1973

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.