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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Immortals

René Barjavel

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To purchase The Immortals

Title: The Immortals
Author: René Barjavel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1973 (Eng. 1974)
Length: 231 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Immortals - US
The Immortals - UK
The Immortals - Canada
Le grand secret - Canada
Le grand secret - France
Das große Geheimnis - Deutschland
El gran secreto - España
  • French title: Le grand secret
  • Translated by Eileen Finletter
  • Le grand secret was made into a TV mini-series in 1989

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Our Assessment:

B : silly, certainly, but with an intriguing premise and fast-paced and relentlessly action-filled

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The original French title of The Immortals is 'the big secret', and it's nearly a hundred pages into the novel before the nature of that secret is revealed; this English title takes some of that suspense away, suggesting as it does what the secret involves -- an odd choice. (Translations into other languages consistently went with the French original.) A three-part novel -- though the middle part is, at six pages, more of an interlude than much of a next chapter -- The Immortals is roughly divided into two: a big secret being kept, and how world leaders handle that, and then the real-life consequences of the secret itself. It is also essentially a novel of two locales: the first part set in the world at large, full of world leaders and an intrepid investigator roaming the globe, while the second part focuses on the small island to which the secret has been confined, Islet 307.
       From the beginning, the short chapters of The Immortals present pieces of the larger puzzle, and those involved in it, a rapid back and forth with a large cast of characters -- notably several of the leaders of major nations --, from 1955 (when the novel opens) through the early 1970s. It begins with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru being summoned to the laboratory of renowned scientist Shri Bahanba, which sets in motion Nehru's campaign of informing the leaders of the world's most important nations -- a select few -- about it. Parallel, we learn about Jeanne Corbet, in her mid-thirties and a married mother with a son, who is having a passionate affair with the slightly younger researcher Roland (also married, and with three children of his own).
       Soon, laboratories start going up in flames, burned completely to the ground, and people -- mainly scientists and technicians -- start disappearing under mysterious circumstances. A lot gets incinerated -- labs, houses, moving vans -- but these events are so spread out (and well-covered up) that no one really makes a connection. When Roland also vanishes, Jeanne senses something strange is up; her sympathetic husband, twenty years her senior, even manages to get an audience with French President Coty but he can reveal practically nothing; Jeanne's husband reports of his meeting with the president:

I had the impression that he thought he already knew too much and that he would give up the Presidency not to know it. He asked me to promise not to try to get to the bottom of all this.
       Jeanne can't leave be; indeed, she becomes obsessed: "Thus began Jeanne's incredible search for Roland, a quest that would take seventeen years". Neglecting her (ridiculously understanding) family, Jeanne crisscrosses the world hunting for some clues about what the hell is going on. She manages to get audiences with some important people -- Queen Elizabeth II, among others -- but makes little headway.
       This first part of the novel covers a long period. Jeanne's hunt is a big part of the story, though it essentially goes nowhere (though not without some excitement). Meanwhile, the mysterious goings-on also continue; she learns of many of them along the way, but it doesn't do her a lot of good: even as she suspects connections, the big picture -- or at least the big secret at the heart of it -- continues to elude her. The world's leaders also take some action -- with several of them taking the secret with them to their graves (rather than passing it on to their successors): it is a very small circle that understand just what is going on.
       Jeanne, and the reader, are finally allowed in that circle when Jeanne's quest comes to an end. She is offered a one-way ticket -- by no one less than American president Richard Nixon personally ... -- to join Roland, with the knowledge that she would never be able to contact her husband and son again -- an offer she has no problems or qualms accepting. (Just how little information about any of this allowed to get out is made clear by the final letter her husband receives from her -- hilariously carefully censored by Nixon himself, and pared down to practically nothing.)
       Jeanne is brought to Islet 307, in the Aleutians. The waters around it are incredibly well-patrolled, heavily armed ships there to make certain that nothing -- absolutely nothing -- escapes from the island. Living there when Jeanne arrives are 1467 souls -- many familiar faces, including illustrious scientists and researchers who had long been reported to have died. Roughly a third of the population are still minors -- but none under ten, the last child having been born on the island a decade or so earlier, in 1962.
       Islet 307 is a sort of paradise: everything they could need is shipped to them (very carefully ...), while island-life is free and idyllic. And, as readers might have guessed (at least from the English title ...) the great secret that has necessitated all this secrecy and isolation is that what Shri Bahanba discovered in his lab back in 1955 was nothing less than the secret to eternal life. Except it's not so much a formula but rather a virus: this JL3 -- its official name --: "lets everything that lives grow to its prime and then keeps it from going downhill". Adult humans not only can't die -- except through serious physical injury -- but don't even age; children continue to grow, to maturity, but not beyond: they'll all remain as they are at eighteen or so forever.
       As wonderful as this grail of immortality sounds, there are problematic consequences, beginning with how it affects other life. Plants flower but never fruit, for example, and so the island has to import all its fruit and grain; if the virus spread worldwide, mass-starvation would ultimately result. Meanwhile, animal-life -- especially insects -- would proliferate at an incredible rate, with similarly devastating results; even on the island, mass-incineration of insect life is a necessary daily task.
       The island-dwellers also realized that human over-population might quickly become an issue in the limited space they have, with the island already presented as a cramped space with people practically falling over each other -- a reflection of the time in which the novel appeared, with its concerns about overpopulation. (At less than 1500 inhabitants, the community could easily have fit into a modest modern-day cruise-ship, so it's hard to take these concerns -- at least in the nearer term -- too seriously; surely room could have been found for a lot more people.) To ensure that none of the females get pregnant they spike the food with a birth-control supplement -- not the ideal solution, as they eventually realize; you'd imagine an island full of top scientists would have thought this through better ....
       Jeanne's reunion with her beloved, after almost two decades, adds some personal drama, too. It's been her singular obsession all these years -- and he too has long dreamed of it -- but the long period of time that has passed is now a complicating factor in yet another way, as Jeanne has aged normally these seventeen years -- while Roland remains physically unchanged. Feeling like an old, spent hag beside the young fellow -- Barjavel is cruelly ageist here -- Jeanne is immediately pretty miserable about the situation she finds herself in -- especially since she knows there's no escape from it: she is stuck on the island, for eternity. Briefly there's some hope, that she's at least immune from the virus, but alas .....
       One more figure plays a prominent role in the story, American diplomat-cum-fixer Samuel Frend. Jeanne crossed paths with him early in her quest, and he continued to play a role in the handling (and covering up) of the big secret; eventually, he too is sent to the island, to keep watch on events there and warn if things get out of hand.
       Naturally, things do get out of hand -- a bit bizarrely, but effectively enough to bring everything to a head. And, given what's at stake, this is of course very problematic; the resolution is the inevitable one -- with Barjavel nicely ominously leaving open-ended what exactly might happen next.
       Even once Jeanne reaches the island, Barjavel continues to set some of the chapters in the world at large, following what those world leaders in the know -- and with those small phials of the virus -- do, neatly weaving in everything from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the American opening to China to the Apollo space program. All the chapters are short and fast and quite action-packed, making for an entertaining if rather far-fetched read: The Immortals is certainly quite over the top, as Barjavel takes his wild idea and runs with it -- at full bore. Nevertheless, there's actually quite a bit to it that's quite clever, especially the nature and consequences of this virus, even if Barjavel is mostly satisfied using it as the trappings for his action-(over-)filled story; it's a shame he didn't explore some of the ramifications in more depth.
       Some of the twists are a bit disappointing, from Jeanne feeling so old compared to Roland -- it's almost comic (and quite offensive) in its exaggeration how she, just in her fifties, feels worthless as a romantic (much less sexual) partner -- to the rather too great freedom the children on the island are allowed to mature in (at their own pace), leading to them predictably getting out of hand.
       The Immortals is quite silly pop-fiction, but it's decent far-escapism: a good, wild idea, quite well-presented, and entertainingly tied in to world events and leaders of the day, with a nice variety of drama.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 May 2020

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The Immortals: Reviews: Le grand secret - the TV mini-series: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author René Barjavel lived 1911 to 1985.

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© 2020 the complete review

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