1. “Each of us, within, was as if devoured by a conflagration, and our hearts were no more than a pinch of ashes. Our souls were laid waste. For a long time now we had believed in nothing, not even in nothingness. The nihilists of 1880 were a set of mystics, dreamers, the routineers of universal happiness. We, of course, were poles apart from these credulous fools and their vaporous theories. We were men of action, technicians, specialists, the pioneers of a modern generation dedicated to death, the preachers of world revolution, the precursors of universal destruction, realists, realists. And there is no reality.”
When Blaise Cendrars is going at full speed, his presentation of humanity as a terminal condition, a diseased state that tends naturally toward self-destruction, can be a singularly exhilarating experience. Refusing the consolations of science and a naïvely optimistic belief in progress, he envisions man as fundamentally and mortally sick, with increasingly destructive warfare the inevitable expression of this sickness. In his classic 1926 novel, Moravagine, Cendrars draws on the picaresque form to send his titular hero—a crippled brute given to raping and murdering women—and his psychiatrist, the ironically titled Raymond Science (the book’s narrator) on a world tour in the years leading up to the Great War, taking them from Europe to America and back in a darkly comedic odyssey of destruction and non-enlightenment. If the offhand brutality of Cendrars’ merciless vision can occasionally be off-putting, the novelist’s headlong prose (as translated into English by Alan Brown) tends to swallow up these instinctive objections in the totality of its death-seeking embrace.