The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau - Book Review - Kristopher Cook

The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau

The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau Book Cover
Following the trails of desire and depravity to a shocking, sadistic paradise - a garden in China where torture is practised as an art form - a dissolute Frenchman discovers the true depths of degradation beyond his prior bourgeois imaginings.
Genre: Contemporary

Often lazily described as a piece of erotic fiction, The Torture Garden is way beyond. Much like Aragon’s surrealist writing in Irene’s Cunt, Mirbeau adds a deep layer of political commentary to this dream-like creation, turning the Eastern world on its head.

Behind the Curtain

Octave Mirbeau was a well-known playwright and novelist during the 19th century. While serving in the army, he became disillusioned by war, instead beginning to apply himself to writing.

His work underwent many transformations, yet it was during his existential crisis that he wrote some of his most notable work; including The Torture Garden.

Written in 1899, The Torture Garden (Le Jardin des supplices) is a unique mix of philosophical writing and sexual terror, which brings together a mind-blowing experience.

Published at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of sharing French military secrets with Germany. Later investigations proved his innocence, causing the focus to shift more towards the anti-Semitic undertones within the French military.

I mention this because the book touches upon a lot of these notions of how people treat others differently based on where they’re from and what they believe.

As criticism of society, Mirbeau shines superior: ‘You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced.

Liberating, Inspiring and Deeply Philosophical

I’m not sure how I feel having read this.

I liked it; even at times, I found it wholly fantastical. However, I was also pushed to my limits when it came to the human suffering. Especially when most of the torturing is done on either petty thieves or innocent peasants.

I guess this is what adds to that level of comfort.

We seem to deem it ok to inflict horrific punishment on serial killers, child-abusers or the like because ‘Hey, they deserve it’. Yet when these Asian torture treatments are applied to those who are somehow less justifiable, it makes your skin crawl.

Then add the fact that all these events are taking place inside of a public garden. You have a real recipe for horror.

Those attending can even interact with the victims by throwing them old pieces of meat or choosing to dangle it in front of their faces before snatching it away.

Torture as an Art Form

While travelling through the torture garden, the narrator and Clara come across others who’re taking an active role in the entertainment.

None more so than the executioner.

He begins to describe his role in society and how he takes pride in his work. As society changes, the need for a skilled torturer such as himself is less needed now that everyone believes they should have a go.

A certain level of disdain begins to appear around this point.

To hear a man talk so confidently in his art form; the art of torturing his victims and causing as much pain as possible. This includes; full sex changes, changing a victim’s skin to make it ‘hang better’, or merely prolonging agony over several days.

All this cruelty and affliction is in the name of entertainment. Clara herself suggests that not finding these victims funny is a form of being bourgeois and out of touch.

Even though the narrator has his own personal levels of depravity, both morally and sexually, the nature of the torture garden is often too much for him to handle.

The only thing keeping him there is his love/desperation for Clara.

The beauty of The Torture Garden is its sophisticated understanding of humans and flowers. While most of us have never stopped to think about it, we have a lot in common. If you’re to believe the views of Clara, these similarities stretch way beyond the need to procreate.

The journey to China links the connections of both life and death, as well as what it means to love. Similarly, sex, depravity and pleasure are all on display when travelling through the torture garden.

No Comparison

There are echoes of De Sade here; however, Mirbeau never drowns the reader in filth.

Instead, there are brief moments to enjoy the nature surrounding these illusionary nightmares. Moments of feeling alive, to compare your love of a woman to that of a flower blooming. And the death of man is a way of fertilising the plot, allowing for more exceptional beauty to blossom.

Based on the imagery in this book, the work is truly breathtaking – An excellent piece of literary work. I can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone wanting to experience something new and challenging.

The Human Element

I think that deep down we all have a slightly masochistic faucet to our personalities, even if it never truly manifests itself.

The power to act cruelly to others is always lying dormant. Whether we choose to act on it is a completely different matter.

Maybe that’s me being cynical, but these types of human beings aren’t born out of nowhere. Environment plays a large part in an individual’s identity, but if we look far inside ourselves, we’re all capable of dark thoughts from time to time.

I remember when I was a kid, thinking about what I’d do when the teacher turned his back. I’m talking aged ten, or somewhere around that.

If I slapped them on the back of the head, what would happen? I know I’d be punished for it, but in that moment what would really happen?

Would they turn around and smack me back? Would I ever be allowed to go to school again?

Like I said, actually acting on these thoughts is another thing entirely. And I’ll have you know I always kept my hands tucked firmly in my pockets whenever these sort of things popped into my head.

Saying that I’m sure everyone experiences these temptations at some point in their lives. You must do, right? I also believe that’s part of the charm of The Torture Garden.

A large community of individuals who each has his or her own temptations, coming together as a community to express them without any restrictions.

Of course this comes at the expense of other’s lives, often innocent peasants; which in itself, raises further questions about how we both perceive and treat others based on their social status.

I feel that I’ve possibly overstated slightly the graphic nature of this book.

Sure, there are incredible acts of savage torture, but it’s also mixed in with dark humour and from a philosophical viewpoint. Each of these work to complement the other well, giving a well-rounded book on the whole.

Closing Thoughts

Although described as ‘pornographic’ and ‘most sickening’ by critics at the time, this book provides the reader with so much more than cheap sex and gruesome imagery.

The Torture Garden is a tour de force of nature, leading the observer through a balanced passage of life at its very best; both incredibly beautiful, and incredibly vicious.

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