The Coast of the Syrtas

Paulo Pasta, Untitled, 2005 front Monotype, 54 x 78,5 cm


Considerations on Julien Gracq's novel

The romance Le Rivage des Syrthes (The coast of the Syrtas), by Julien Gracq, published in 1951, allowed me to realize that geography can become fiction and that fiction can become geography. This was a discovery of the utmost importance, impacting both my understanding of science and my understanding of literature. When I read it, more than twenty years ago, I already knew that history and anthropology can be made into fiction, but I had no idea that this formula could also be extended to geography. So, I would like to talk a little about this book, one of the strangest and, at the same time, most beautiful I have ever read.

Julien Gracq, French writer born in the Loire Valley in 1910 and died in 2007 in the same region, received the Goncourt Prize, the most important literary prize in France, in 1951, precisely for this novel – an award that, incidentally, he refused, causing a huge scandal, also because it was the first time – and only, until today – that Goncourt was refused.

It was the third novel by Julien Gracq, who was greatly influenced by and recognized for the surrealist movement (Grossman, 1980). Since Au château d'Argol, his first book, from 1938, was accompanied by certain sectors of literary criticism, who recognized the influence of this aesthetic movement on him and, also, a certain critical distance that his work carried in relation to the surrealists (Cf. Berthier, 1990; Carrière, 1986; Cahier de l'Herne, 1972; Revue 303, 2006).

But let's get to the romance. what is it about Le Rivage des Syrthes? From the monotony of life? Of fear in relation to alterity? Of a collective suicide? Maybe a little bit of all that, along with a theory about space and time.

Let's start from the plot of the novel. Which, by the way, is very easy to count, because practically nothing happens in the almost 400 pages of the book. This happens because Le Rivage des Syrthes it is a landscape book, a description of places, people and even silences, not plots or events. It is a book that deals with silence. A fundamental element of this novel is silence. A silence that does not mean the absence of noise, as the sounds of nature, civilization and uncivilization are carefully and extensively described.

It is a silence of words, of dialogues, of language. The world where it goes Le Rivage des Syrtes it has not yet been domesticated, or colonized, by language. And, thus, it is a silence that allegorizes things like inertia, boredom, history, rumor and fear – which are things that resist submitting to language, at least to what we more commonly understand as language.

Julien Gracq's silence is a paradoxical silence: nothing happens and that leads to seeing that everything happens. Gracq, deep down, is thematizing language as an instrument of knowledge of the world. He is showing that language mediates the relationship with the world, but also that the world is much bigger than language and cannot always be subjected, reduced, to it.

But yes, let's go to the plot, so to speak, of this novel, although talking about the plot, regarding this book, is almost absurd. Everything revolves around this almost, around the word almost, which is actually the real theme of the book.

The story begins with the arrival of a young aristocrat, Aldo, in an overseas province belonging to the old lordship of Orsena, his country. This is the province of Syrtas, which is separated by an inland sea, the Sea of ​​Syrtas, from a wild and mysterious country, Farghestan. The lordship of Orsena was at war with Farghestan three hundred years ago, and since then has had no contact with that barbarous country. Theoretically this war is not over, as the two nations never signed an armistice, but for 300 years the fighting has been paralyzed. There is no exchange between the two countries. Nobody can sail or fish in that sea and Orsena lives in an eternal wait for the conflicts to resume.

Everyone in Orsena is always on the lookout for the coast, for the shores, for the coast of the province of Syrtas, vigilant and attentive to any movement coming from there – but nothing is seen.

Aldo, the narrator of the story, belongs to one of the oldest and most important families of the lordship of Orsena. At the beginning of the plot, he receives a public mission of high dignity, but which betrays the evident decadence of Orsena, a republic where nothing happens and which lives trapped in its glorious past. Aldo is sent as an “observer” of the military situation in the province. Imagine what a strange function: to observe a state of peace, a situation of non-belligerence that has lasted for 300 years.

Well, Aldo is a dysphoric boy, that is, a dissatisfied, reflective guy who doesn't believe that things can really change. In his dysphoria, Aldo embodies one of the arcana of world literature, which is precisely the image of the dysphoric boy, who comes from, who proceeds from, who is born, from a social lethargy and who is confronted with an ebullient world that may or may not withdraw him of his condition (Enthoven, 2014). This literary arcane is present in Marcel, Proust's character; in Hans Castorp, the character from The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann; in Floriano Cambará, from O Tempo e o Vento, by Érico Veríssimo, and also in Alfredo, from Ciclo do Extremo Norte, by Dalcídio Jurandir. By the way, not only is the image of the dysphoric narrator one of the great figures of literary history, but also dysphoria – which, precisely, consists in doubting civilization – constitutes one of the central tricks that literature has in renewing the civilizational pact.

Dysphoric, in this case, is said to be the opposite of euphoric – the subject being excessively excited about something – bearing in mind that, in psychiatry, dysphoria generally has depression and anxiety as symptoms, but that in literature it manifests itself, above all , as a nuisance, a perplexity and an inaction before the world.

Aldo arrives in the coastal province of Syrtas and takes up residence in the main fortress that the Republic of Orsena maintains in place, commanded by General Merino, with whom he becomes a friend. He also makes friends with other characters, like Fabricio, Giovani, Roberto – all of them soldiers in the fortress. There is also Belzenza, the representative of the lordship, the governor of the province of Syrtas, who perfectly symbolizes Orsena's lethargy and decay.

And there is also a female character, Vanessa Aldobrandi, a noblewoman from Orsena who lives in the province, in a palace, in the village of Marema. Vanessa's great-great-grandfather was a general, a hero of the ancient war against Farghestan.

The name Vanessa Aldobrandi has interesting references. Her last name contains the pre-name Aldo (Aldobrandi) and the pre-name Vanessa itself refers to elements of her personality: the mysterious evanescence that characterizes her and also the Vanessa butterfly, a genus belonging to the group nymphalini, considered for its beauty but also as a demonic symbol, in the European symbolic tradition. By the way, it is this butterfly that is painted on the painting. The Fall of the Rebel Angels, by Breughel, wandering among the demons.

In addition to these characters, it is necessary to describe the geography of the novel, its true character, crossed by a reflection on temporality which, as such, is constituted as the complementary character. We may thus speak of the lordship of Orsena, the province of the Syrtas, its sea, and the immediate and enemy territory of Farghestan. Let's go, then, to the imaginary geography of the novel.

Orsena is an ancient and dying city, where nothing happens, but where you live off the glories of the past. In the description that is made of it, we perceive it as a city-state and it is almost evident that its model is Venice. This old lordship still has several colonies, generally unproductive territories, basically militarized points that serve to guarantee the subsistence of its old nobility.

The province of Syrtas, in turn, looks like quicksand, so many cultures have intervened over it through successive invasions and civilizations. A barbaric mosaic, dominated by the nomadism of local populations and lack of communication.

The republic of Orsena is fixed, lasting, historical, but Farghestan is mobile, alive, changing. The first is dysphoric and the second euphoric. The province of Syrtas, in turn, located between these two worlds, is an ambivalent territory: governed by the rationalizing, modern, European power of Orsena but vulnerable to a barbaric history, a mysterious nature and modes of language that are not understood. by the dominating power.

This careful and vigilant cohabitation produces a culture of silence. Much is heard and almost nothing is said. And in that expectation, everything can change at any moment. One detail, one small suspicious movement, is enough to change the world. Life becomes an eternal wait, vigil, vigilance.

Imaginary territories, made of lagoons, ancient cities, dense forests, mysterious caves and abandoned palaces. All this produces the image of a border situation, between past and present and, above all, between desire and boredom. Incidentally, this polarization between desire and boredom is one of the cogs that move the book. The narrator's rambling style – Aldo himself – suggests this boredom: slow and very long sentences, almost no action, the reflective description of the details of the landscape, the silences, the absence of communication. It is immensely close to the style and class boredom of Marcel Proust, the most influential author of the work of Julien Gracq. A style that certainly translates a habitus of class, referring to the way of seeing the world, and above all the history, of the aristocracy to which the narrator belongs.

And it is precisely because of this tedious monotony that otherness is made. Seeing Farguestan, knowing about this place, is always a temptation poorly concealed by the characters. The sea of ​​Syrtas has been forbidden to navigation for 300 years and so what remains is the distant horizon. On an adventurous walk through the forests near the border, Aldo and Vanessa see the Tengri volcano. They know that behind him is Rage, the capital of Farguestan, but this approximation is also paradoxical, because they see that they never see the capital, which is still hidden by the volcano, they just know that it is there, if it still exists, if it exists at all. it's still the capital.

Practically nothing is known about Farguestan, which makes it the very experience of alterity, of difference, including existential difference. Apparently, the country moves, produces history, is alive – unlike Orsena's landlord, who lives in the past.

Farghestan is presented proustianly, far away, a place of which nothing is known, a kind of over there – using an expression dear to Julien Gracq – but, paradoxically, this nothingness makes him a living and immediate presence, as such is the animosity, the negative predisposition towards him, towards his condition as different, as a foreigner, that he makes an obsessive presence. An imaginary enemy, made imaginary through a centuries-old silence, which, like silence, makes more and more noise.

Farghestan is alterity, the others. We don't want to see them or understand them. Orsena is the sameness, the sameness, the iteration. The entire novel is about this struggle between the empire of the known and the empire of the unknown.

Of course, we can imagine that these imaginary territories have immediate references. Orsena is reminiscent of Venice, the most serene republic, with its glorious past and its overseas conquests. He remembers it for two reasons: the city's tradition of militarized coastal colonies and its persistent confrontation with the “orient”, notably with the Ottoman Empire – references inter-read in Julien Gracq's text.

Farghestan, in turn, suggests a Muslim world, more closely the Ottoman Empire. The war between these two worlds is incredibly reminiscent of the naval battle of Lepanto. It is a geopolitical novel, as observed by Yves Lacoste (1990, p. 183).

I would also like to mention some stylistic elements of the novel. First, the fact that there are plenty of words written in italics. This resource turns out to be a characteristic of the novel and allows Julien Gracq to overdetermine the meaning, to place a snag of equivocality, of undecidability that resonates, effectively and fruitfully, on the text.

Another important function of the novel's text is the permanent movement of description, which becomes paradoxical in a plot where almost nothing happens. What is described? The landscapes and villages of the province, the environment in a state of suspension, always waiting for an event.

We can also refer to the immense influence of two authors on the work of Julien Gracq: Marcel Proust and André Breton, something already mentioned by Enthoven. Proust is present in the phrastic structure, in the descriptive impulse and through certain themes – such as architecture and boredom. André Breton, in turn, is present through surrealism, discreet in the work of Julien Garcq, but present and also through the theme of waiting. Of the waiting that blows, inflates, gurgles, changes the density and coagulation of desire. The waiting that nourishes the desire.

Another important element of the book is the engine of action, effectively a great allegory for the themes of waiting and searching. The attempt, through waiting, to understand what is going on. That engine is the rumor. I could say here, evoking the Heideggerian term of Gerede the “chatter” (Heidegger, 2012). Suddenly, at any moment, there is a rumor, a gossip, that political changes are taking place in Farghestan. This rumor, associated with boredom, plays a fundamental role in social and political life. Orsena all moves from rumors. From this or other rumors. Nothing happens in the story, but Orsena remains obsessively vigilant. It is from rumor that legends are born and it is from legends that history is born.

As, by the way, Depotte (2020) observes, we have here the mechanism of Jean de La Fontaine, in his theory of fables: everyone hopes, waits, what they fear. And from waiting so long, he ends up cultivating a morbid attraction for this object of fear. And after this attraction is created, people end up involved by the certainty that it will happen and are waiting, permanently, for it to happen. Thus, when any slightest detail changes, or any random event happens, there is a tendency to believe that this tiny change confirms the previously held belief. This is how imaginary realities are produced. Orsena's life takes place in this system: all of the country's politics revolve around imaginary realities, one of which is precisely the threat of that imaginary enemy that is Farguestan.

Any similarity with contemporary reality, particularly with Brazilian political reality, is not mere coincidence.

And so, after so many twists and turns, as in the culmination of all the rumors, we reach the climax of the novel. General Merino is absent and Aldo, together with Vanessa, decide to launch a frigate into the forbidden sea, which approaches the coast of Farguestan and ends up relaunching, in truth, no longer as a rumor, the two countries in the war. The mistake was believing that rumors do not produce realities…

Paradoxically, this war is celebrated. Nobody does anything to stop it. Paradoxically, the war frees Orsena. It releases Orsena from her boredom, her waiting, her story, throwing her into a numbing euphoria.

If we think that Orsena represents Europe, the idea of ​​civilization or even the nobility or the bourgeoisie, we can understand that the state of war, facing the foreigner, the unknown, the barbarian, represents an attempt at a turnaround, for some necessary and dialectical. Perhaps this is the central theme of Le Rivage des Syrtes.

I conclude by saying that, for me, this long prose poem constitutes an intense literary emotion. A novel that echoes not only my symbolic expectations but also my reflective and theoretical expectations around themes that are very dear to me and that underlie my understanding of phenomena that I observe, such as waiting, silence, boredom, the rumor of gossip, gossip as rumour, the inefficiency of language to effect communication and the transcendence of communication without language – both on the banality of language and on the banality of the world.

*Fabio Horácio-Castro is a writer, author of the novel The melancholy reptile (All time lap record). With the name of Fábio Fonseca de Castro, he signs his scientific work, as a professor at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).


Julien Gracq. Le Rivage des Syrtes. Paris, José Corti, 1989, 322 pages.


BERTHIER, Philippe. Julien Gracq review. Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1990.

CAHIER DE L'HERNE (magazine). Julien Gracq. no. 20 (special), 1972 (re-edited by Le Livre de Poche, coll. « Biblioessais », 1997).

CARRIÈRE, Jean. Julien Gracq, qui êtes-vous? Lyon: La Manufacture, 1986.

DEPOTTE, JP “Le Rivage des Syrtes”, by Julien Gracq. Alchimie d'un roman, n°65. Available in

ENTHOVEN, Raphael. Le Gai Savoir: Le Rivage des Syrtes, by Julien Gracq. Radio broadcast transmitted in 2014. Available at

GROSSMAN, Simone. Julien Gracq et le surréalisme. Paris: José Corti, 1980.

HEIDEGGER, Martin. Being and time. Rio de Janeiro: Voices, 2012.

LACOSTE, Yves. Paysages politiques, Braudel, Gracq, Reclus… Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1990.

REVUE 303 (magazine). Who lives? Autour by Julien Gracq. No. 93 (special), 2006. Available at:

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