Fascination with creatures that challenge boundaries between humans and other species long predates Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Narratives have evolved from the fabulous to the more scientifically grounded, and tend to follow either the regressive or relativistic model, established respectively by Swift and Voltaire: men as apes, debased, stinking brutes; or apes as men, as potential rivals and substitutes. My aim here is to sample and compare a select corpus of fictional texts in French and English ranging from the late nineteenth century to the present, which deal with monstrosity or the incursion into the human domain of threatening, rival primate species, in the context of human evolution, whether individual, social or biological. Stevenson, Zola, Maupassant and Hugo all present variations of the self dispossessed by some monstrous other, whether through physical deformity caused by a malicious external agent, or more subtly through some internal disturbance of ontological equilibrium. This unleashes creatures that devour their human host, but at the cost of their own extinction. H. G. Wells and Octave Mirbeau, on the other hand, adopt the perspective of the external observer who poses as a scientific witness of attempts to modify human and animal evolution. In conclusion, I discuss two twentieth-century novels which rewrite the whole course of primate evolution, Boulle’s La Planète des singes (1963) and Self’s Great Apes (1997).
The French war correspondent and best-selling novelist Jean Lartéguy is mainly remembered for his novels about the Algerian War. Les Chimères noires (1963), the object of study of this chapter, also merits rediscovery, since this engaging roman à clé focuses on a more neglected but equally violent and tragic conflict of decolonization: the short-lived secession of South Katanga from the newly independent former Belgian Congo in July 1960. Given the relatively limited attention accorded by the international media to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s seventeen civil wars since independence, works like Lartéguy’s have an important memorializing function. Analysing Lartéguy’s treatment of the conflict, its ideological and mythic dimensions, the chapter also explores wider generic, ethical and cultural issues, in particular the strengths and limitations of fictionalized accounts of the Congo like Les Chimères noires in comparison to ostensibly more factual works by diplomats and historians.