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Friday, 6 March 2015

FFB - Monkey Planet

Friday's forgotten book is not quite forgotten, since a film franchise is still very active based on the book, though perhaps the original isn't read much these days. Which is a shame. 

I first read Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet as a serial in 1963 in Weekend magazine (in those far off days when popular general interest magazines featured fiction). It was accompanied by tasteful photo-illustrations posed by models. Translated from the original French, of course; subsequently, I read the book borrowed from the library (hardback shown above, left). Renamed Planet of the Apes, it has since won praise and sold over a million copies, largely thanks to the film franchise that shows no sign of flagging.

It’s doubtful if the storyline needs to be encapsulated, really. Earthmen encounter a planet run by apes, where the humans are mute and treated like chattel. Captivity was a theme Boulle returned to often in his fiction – for probable reasons, see below.

The book begins in a different fashion to the film. Jinn and Phyllis are holidaying from Earth in space when they come upon a message in a bottle. Then unfolds the strange story of Earthman Ulysse Merou… (Interesting that Edgar Rice Burroughs used a character called Ulysses Paxton in his 1928 book The Mastermind of Mars).

The denouement in the book also differs slightly from the first movie; cleverly done, satisfying, if not as powerful. Without this book we would not have lodged in our collective consciousness that most iconic end-scene of the film, nor enjoyed the subsequent escapist movies, all imaginatively extrapolated from the original concept.

Pierre Boulle started work as an engineer in Malayan rubber plantations in 1938. At the outbreak of war, he joined a Gaullist resistance group in Singapore. Boulle embarked on a home-made raft in an attempt to enter Indo-China but he was caught and arrested by troops of the Vichy regime, court-martialled in Hanoi and condemned to hard labour for life.

Boulle spent two years in prison, suffering very harsh conditions. In 1944, thanks to contacts in the camp, he escaped and went back to Malaya after the war. He returned to France in 1947 with the rank of captain and gained a number of honours: the Croix de Guerre, the Medaille de la Resistance; and he was made an Officier de la Legion d'Honneur.

He abandoned engineering in favour of writing: ‘One night I had a revelation of a certain truth - that I had to be a writer.’ He rented a small room in Montparnasse and on a second-hand Underwood typed his first novel, William Conrad (1950); it had nothing to do with the TV series Cannon, naturally, but was about a German spy on a mission to Britain. Indeed, the title was a tribute to one of his (and my) favourite authors, Joseph Conrad: other writers he admired were Swift, Wells, Stevenson and Voltaire.

Some years after reading Monkey Planet, I read his French Resistance novel A Noble Profession which is about a WWII spy who is captured and succumbs to torture. It’s a brilliant psychological novel about courage, arrogance and cowardice. And his book The Bridge Over the River Kwai is also about captivity and moral choices.
Boulle died in 1994, aged 81.

PS - My French Resistance story 'Hammer and Honey' can be found here - it won an award and was featured in the anthology When the Flowers are in Bloom (out of print).


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