Obituary: Pierre Boulle
Wednesday 02 February 1994
THOUGH he was born in Avignon, Pierre Boulle was by no means a typical man of the Midi. Instead of being talkative and given to flamboyant gesture, he was reserved and solitary. He never married, and the last years of his life were spent living with his sister in a vast apartment in Paris near the Etoile. The man who wrote extraordinary books of adventure and fantasy, in real and imaginary foreign settings, including The Planet of the Apes and The Bridge on the River Kwai, could be seen taking a daily constitutional in the Bois de Boulogne.
Boulle had a comfortable, happy childhood, later evoked with quiet charm in L'Ilon (1990). He went to school at the Lycee d'Avignon and at the Faculte de Sciences in Paris. He started work as an engineer in Malayan rubber plantations in 1938. At the outbreak of war, he was mobilised, and joined a Gaullist resistance group in Singapore that made its way to China. There Boulle embarked on a home-made raft in an attempt to enter Indo- China, but he was arrested by troops of the Vichy regime, court- martialled in Hanoi and condemned to hard labour for life.
Boulle spent two years in prison, under very harsh conditions. He was able to scribble notes on bits of paper, and in 1944, thanks to contacts in the camp, he was able to escape and return to Malaya after the war. He returned to France in 1947 with the rank of captain and covered with honours, including the Croix de Guerre, and the Medaille de la Resistance; he was also made an Officier de la Legion d'Honneur.
Boulle 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 Montparanasse and on a second-hand, very battered Underwood he typed his first novel, William Conrad (1950), about a German spy on a mission to Britain. The title was a tribute to one of his favourite authors, Joseph Conrad: others he admired were Swift, Wells, Stevenson and Voltaire.
Boulle's first big success was The Bridge on the River Kwai (1952), which was translated into 22 languages, sold 6 million copies in the United States alone and was made into a great movie by David Lean in 1959, with its catchy, cheeky march signature tune. Despite the poor light in which it showed them, even the Japanese adored it. The novel was awarded the Prix Sainte-Beuve. Another worldwide success was Planet of the Apes (1963), both as a novel and as a film (1967), with four equally popular sequels and television series based on the characters in the book. The movie version lightened with tact the sometimes humourless moralising of the novel, with its plodding theories of evolution; and the Swiftian idea of human beings being studied by apes is more believable on screen than on the page. Boulle had a hand in the film scripts and always denied that the story was 'science fiction'.
Boulle also helped with the script of an excellent French television version of Un Metier de seigneur ('A Gentleman's Profession'): the profession is that of a spy who is also a traitor, a part superbly played by Pierre Arditi opposite Christopher Lee as the man he betrays. It was based on an acutal spy case. Indeed, many of Boulle's works were rooted in his personal experiences in Malaya and Indo-China. One volume of memoirs is called Aux sources de la riviere Kwai.
Even Boulle's fantasy stories had a solid basis in fact. Le Professeur Mortimer (1988) is about a cancer specialist and a protector of animal rights named Miss Bridget - a sly reference to Brigitte Bardot and her crusades. Le Bon Leviathan (1978) is about a nuclear-powered petrol supertanker and a group of terrified ecologists who try to save the oceans from irreversible disaster. La Baleine des Malouines ('The Whale of the Falklands', 1983) was inspired by the Falklands War. And Le Malheur des uns ('The Misfortune of Others', 1989) is about the unfortunates infected by Aids and how their tragic sickness is heartlessly exploited by the commercial interest controlling medical supplies, laboratory research and even the manufacture of condoms - made with latex from Malaysia.
There is often a moralising tone in such stories, though they are so expertly written one accepts being 'got at' in a good cause. The idea was everything for Boulle:
A novel is built around an abstract idea, on the logic of the absurd. Only after having got the thing precisely plotted do I add my own memories and experiences. and research documents. One can not write a good novel if it is not given the support of one master-idea.
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