It’s a boy? I’m tired. Let’s just name him “Guy” for now and change it later.

In A Cremation, Guy de Maupassant imagines a visiting Indian Prince getting cremated along the cliffs of Étretat, France:

The funeral pile was about three and a half feet high. The corpse was placed on it and then one of the Indians asked to have the pole star pointed out to him. This was done, and the dead Rajah was laid with his feet turned towards his native country. Then twelve bottles of kerosene were poured over him and he was covered completely with thin slabs of pine wood. For almost another hour the relations and servants kept piling up the funeral pyre which looked like one of those piles of wood that carpenters keep in their yards. Then on top of this was poured the contents of twenty bottles of oil, and on top of all they emptied a bag of fine shavings. A few steps further on, a flame was glimmering in a little bronze brazier, which had remained lighted since the arrival of the corpse.

The moment had arrived. The relations went to fetch the fire. As it was barely alight, some oil was poured on it, and suddenly a flame arose lighting up the great wall of rock from summit to base. An Indian who was leaning over the brazier rose upright, his two hands in the air, his elbows bent, and all at once we saw arising, all black on the immense white cliff, a colossal shadow, the shadow of Buddha in his hieratic posture. And the little pointed toque that the man wore on his head even looked like the head-dress of the god.

The effect was so striking and unexpected that I felt my heart beat as though some supernatural apparition had risen up before me.

That was just what it was—the ancient and sacred image, come from the heart of the East to the ends of Europe, and watching over its son whom they were going to cremate there.

The next morning, confused French locals tried to make sense of what happened:

A crowd of people spent the day on the site of the funeral pile, looking for fragments of bone in the shingle that was still warm. They found enough bones to reconstruct ten skeletons, for the farmers on shore frequently throw their dead sheep into the sea. The finders carefully placed these various fragments in their pocketbooks. But not one of them possesses a true particle of the Indian prince.

These are the cliffs of Étretat, which Maupassant saw and wondered “What could I set here to make these seem dramatic?”

(Copyright Moyan Brenn)

Of course, those of us who remember Maupassant from our days as shoolboys at the seminary of Yvetot are shocked by his success.  For there…

He rebelled, misbehaved and, finally, was expelled when an allegedly obscene poem, written on the occasion of a pretty girl cousin’s marriage, was discovered by the authorities. (Introduction to “A Parisian Affair and Other Stories”)


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