The Cotton Fortress (La forteresse de coton) by Philippe Curval

“The Cotton Fortress” or, more accurately, “the Cotton Castle” is the meaning of the Turkish name Pamukkale given to the thermal water resort famous for its snow-white travertine terraces formed by the calcium carbonide-rich springs over millennia. According to the legend, the geological formation was the place where giants laid out heaps of cotton to dry. This otherworldy-looking site is potentially a rich source of metaphors, and the mere fact that it’s used for the title should raise a lot of expectations among the readers. The blurb, which mentions the main character’s stay in Turkey, is likely to heighten these expectations even more. But the problem is that although some part of the action does take place in Turkey, the place which is described is not Pamukkale, but another famous site: Nemrut Dag. Pamukkale is never even mentioned. So, why is this book titled The Cotton Fortress? It’s one of many puzzles of this enigmatic work, which has been stirring the imagination of Francophone readers for more than fifty years.

Philippe Curval is often called “the high priest” of French science fiction. He has produced lots of novels set in the future and featuring space or inter-dimensional travel. However, the beautifully written The Cotton Fortress, which many believe to be his most significant work, is difficult to classify as a sci-fi novel, not the least because it is difficult to classify at all. It might be a science-fiction novel if we accept a certain interpretation of the befuddling events narrated in it. If this novel is about the emergence of parallel worlds, about the growing pustule in time that gradually separates one version of the protagonist from the other, then it is probably some kind of metaphysical science fiction. But if it’s a story about schizophrenia, which relates how the main character gets detached from objective reality and plunges into the tenous world of hallucinations, then the label of a cult sci-fi classic is hardly applicable to Curval’s book. Or what if it’s just an allegory of love and redemption, a symbolic exploration of passion, jealousy and repentance with the majestic, decadent Venice as the backdrop? The Cotton Fortress is more effective in raising questions than giving answers, which might be the main secret of the fascination it keeps exercising over its readers even today.

The protagonist Blaise Canehan is a man of vivid imagination. The crucial stage for its development was the period immediately after his uncle’s death. The wealthy relative left him a house, a car, and a chest of pornographic memoirs. The notebooks revealed a stunning number and variety of the uncle’s sexual adventures during many sea-voyages, complete with the addresses of the brothels and the photographs of the prostitutes.  The eighteen-year-old spent three years re-living his uncle’s experiences in his imagination, not just masturbating to the pornographic content, but developing elaborate mind games, a proto-virtual reality generated by his own consciousness.

Years later, Blaise Canehan’s relationship with the mysterious woman Sarah also evolves into a game, but much more complex than the erotic imaginings of his youth. They have a brief but passionate encounter in Paris, and Canehan, possessed by infatuation, offers Sarah to stay in an imposing palazzo in Venice and wait for his return from a ten-month archeological expedition to Mount Nemrud, the excavation site of the mausoleum of King Antiochus I. While apart, they keep in touch through correspondence, some bits of which tell us about the origins of their game. Racked by Sarah’s infidelity, which could have been fictitious, Canehan employs a certain Grégoire Salvi to pose as Sarah’s lover in order to chase off the real suitors. Salvi becomes Sarah’s real lover as soon as Canehan stops paying him, and when Canehan finally arrives in Venice under the assumed identity of Julien Cholle, which Sarah invented for him, with the express purpose of re-conquering his paramour and getting rid of the competitor by tasking him with selling the pornography chest, it becomes obvious that the game has been underway for some time, and that now it is hardly possible to disentangle it from real life and genuine actions.

The final stage of the game sees the bed-ridden Sarah recovering from an abdominal wound that wouldn’t close, which she sustained after throwing herself into the Grand Canal (yet another pantomime in the performance) and the increasingly delusional Blaise taking care of her.  Salvi is seemingly out of the way. It is time for Canehan to move from his boarding house, the temporary headquarters for his new persona, to the ivy-strewn Palazzo del Sarte overlooking the Misericordia Canal, and, once his beloved is healed, to depart with her to a halcyon future. That’s when the doubling of the protagonist, repeatedly anticipated in the narrative, occurs.

What is the cause of this splitting? Perhaps what we witness is the separation of two universes, the one in which the impostor Julien Cholle, who has started believing that he is the real Blaise Canehan, is forever trapped in a vicious decaying Venice, festering like the unhealed wound of his lover, and the universe in which Sarah and Blaise have abandoned the game and accepted the reality as it is and all the possible challenges of their unfolding affair. It is also quite possible that the splitting of Canehan into two persons is just the resounding finale of his schizophrenic deterioration, the first alarming signs of which appeared as far back as his stint at Nemrut Dag. His involvement in the game, which was designed with a view to blurring fantasy and reality in the first place, aggravated his condition and accelerated his eventual descent into madness. Or maybe the whole game has been just the invention of his fevered mind, and we cannot trust most of what is narrated since it is filtered through his consciousness. There is also a possibility that the characters with biblical names Sarah and Canehan (i. e. Canaan) by overcoming the temptations and pitfalls on their way to happiness, renounce the insincere and superficial aspects of their romantic relationship, regain each other’s trust and thus transport themselves to the promised land of love, respect and fertility: hence the sealing of Sarah’s wound when Blaise’s double comes to stay with her for good. The Fortress of Cotton is a work that is unlikely to give us enough evidence to choose between these three versions. We can only speculate. Just as any attempt to explain the baffling title will be yet another speculation.

Mount Nemrut. Photo credit: Zhengan. Image Source.

Pamukkale. Image Source.

The tomb of Antiochus I, the king of Commagene, is an elaborate man-made structure, whereas the Cotton Fortress is a natural formation. Canehan and Sarah’s game could be viewed as a type of psychological archaeology, an attempt to excavate the hidden form concealed beneath the surface of pretensions and deceptiveness. One aspect of the protagonist, Julien Cholle, proceeds with the game until the end and is rewarded with the discovery of an ancient mausoleum, a beautiful but dead place. The other aspect, Blaise Canehan, at some point refuses to dig further. He turns away from the excavation site and moves to the scintillating travertine hills of the Cotton Fortress, a place free of artifice whose undulating complexity reflects that of a lived life. Perhaps the whole point of writing The Cotton Fortress in 1967 was to ask us which alternative we preferred.

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