My cat likes trouble; he is unable to resist doing things that he knows he ought not to do, like working his way inside my wardrobe or pulling my books off the shelves. It’s not that he doesn’t know right from wrong, he does. Before doing anything that I disapprove of he will look at me, and if I catch his eye he will fall to the ground and meow in an agitated manner. He knows. The reality is that he enjoys living on the edge; it is thrilling. Life is long, and amusements scarce for a decadent housebound cat; one has to enliven the day somehow.
This type of behaviour isn’t specific to cats either; the same impulse exists amongst human beings also, and it is this impulse that is the focus of Julien Gracq’s beautiful, brilliant novel. The plot is fairly straightforward, it is centred around [is actually narrated by] an impetuous young nobleman, Aldo, who comes to be stationed at an old naval base that was initially built as a way of defending Orsenna, where the book is set, against the threat posed by neighbouring Farghestan. There has been no direct action for 300 years, but the two parties are officially still at war.
As the novel progresses this sense of a war eternally suspended, of a war never concluded, creates a curious atmosphere of unease and tension. It becomes increasingly apparent that certain influential citizens of Orsenna are hoping that something will happen to kick start the war, in the belief that it will rouse everyone out of a torpor caused by many years of comfort and stability. In fact, these citizens are tempted to actively do that something that will hasten the conflict. The close proximity of Farghestan is taunting them, reminding them constantly of the possibility of a new, more exciting, existence.
“And what can still delight an inert stone except to become, once more, the bed of a raging torrent?”
In The Opposing Shore, war with Farghestan is the proverbial itch that you ought not to scratch, or, to return to my cat, the wardrobe you’re not meant to venture into. It’s a bad idea, it will get you in trouble, but, when motivated by a heightened sense of ennui one is likely to think fuck it, let’s do it anyway.