A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan

a-handbook-for-the-perfect-adventurer-3The existence of this book is, quite frankly, bizarre.

The preface introduces Pierre Mac Orlan — an influential but neglected French writer of the early twentieth century. A writer of absurdist tales and adventure novels, personal essays and accordion songs. Under pseudonym, an abundance of flagellation novels. Some of these novels were made into films including the semi-famous Port of Shadows. Yet almost none of his work was translated into English and that which was is all but impossible to find.

All of this is well and good, and the intro writer does a good job of conjuring curiosity and intrigue on the subject of Pierre Mac Orlan. I was ready. Give me the adventure. The flagellation and absurd.

So it came as a surprise that after all this hype, the book the publisher chose to translate was a pamphlet* steeped in a literary-philosophical conflict not of our time and filled with a constant slew of literary recommendations for novels and writers that would be incredibly difficult to track down, if they had ever been translated into English in the first place. The book was written in 1920 after all. There’s endnotes explaining each now-obscure point of reference or writer that contains nearly as many words as the main text itself!

Mac Orlan defines two different sorts of adventurers:

The active adventurer — The person (always a man, women are set pieces — more on this later) who goes off and has some adventure somewhere. He’s probably a sailor and quick with a sabre and off to lands unknown. Impetuous and with a low regard for personal safety, the book even comes with a list of traits these fellows show in childhood.

The passive adventurer — The one who does not travel anywhere farther than the local tavern (mythologized in loving detail), the one who coaxes the gullible active adventure on some perilous mission upon the high-seas and then writes a novel about it afterward. Their defining features are their voracious appetite for reading, their parasitic relationship to the active adventure, and their desire to put it all into writing.

Mac Orlan praises the passive adventurer as one who can write tales about lands he has never been to, who lives by reading and finds all the “research” he may need by familiarity with the great writers of his time (or, again, The Tavern). The introduction makes the comparison to Marcel Proust composing his opus without ever really leaving his bedroom. I would disagree with Mac Orlan, and surely that sort of attitude might explain the cringe-worthy books written by westerners of that time period (and now) about other countries that are hilariously inaccurate and probably racist. But I wasn’t really engaging with this argument because I can never tell when Pierre Mac Orlan is serious.

For he is always dry and mordant, and while he seems to be praising the passive adventurer and determining the active as foolish, there is also a World War I reactionary bent throughout. Is he applauding the passive adventurer or embarking upon a biting satirical take of the governments involved in the Great War — passive adventurers who gladly sent their captive active adventurers to their deaths en masse? The passive adventurer’s manipulation of (human) subject is stressed and at the end, Mac Orlan even warns that the active adventurer, should he survive his sojourn, occasionally comes back to beat the passive adventurer senseless.

This is a constant of the book. It’s impossible to tell if the man is being serious. Everything is written in a deadpan, deliberate tone. In one sentence, he is being a homophobe:

“An adventurer should never be made a homosexual, so as not to break with the prejudice that decrees that an individual with effeminate manners cannot act courageously.”

Then in the same breath, he contradicts his own edict:

“However, this vice has nothing to do with physical courage, which always leads to scorning death.”

Similarly, he refers to women as objects to be inserted into adventure stories like other “props”. His prime example involves comparing types of women to the accoutrements of a ship. Does he really mean it? I don’t know!

I’m still fascinated and Mac Orlan’s sentence-level writing is calculated wit and fun to read, so maybe this choice for translation was smart after all. Certainly it was cheaper than translating a full-length novel. I would like one of those.

*And pamphlet it is. Goodreads lists it as one hundred and one pages but there is an immensity of white space and blank pages. Seriously — there are five blank pages placed at the end of the book for no real reason other than to pad the sizing. The pages themselves are thicker than normal. It takes all of thirty minutes to read.

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