“What I owe to Jean Raspail is, first of all, that he confirmed for me the idea that geography can be a great consolation,” French explorer and writer, Sylvain Tesson, has said. Both men were “marine writers” — meaning that the French Navy recognizes that their works honour France’s maritime vocation. This recognition allowed both men to wear the French naval uniform onboard ships and to add a naval anchor to their signature (which is how Jean Raspail signed his autographs).

The anchor is an apt symbol for Raspail: it is inseparable from a moving ship that sails the seas, while also helping to ground it and maintain it in place when necessary. This duality partly sums up Raspail himself, whose works sing of both voyages and the rootedness of identity.

Image courtesy of Lionel Allorge under CCA 3.0 Unported license.

A traveller Raspail certainly was. At the age of 24, he travelled across North America by canoe, from Quebec to New Orleans. With a few fellow scouts, he set out in the footsteps of the French pioneers of America (people like Father Marquette). Separated by three centuries, Raspail and his friends wanted to follow in the footsteps of such pioneers and explore what was formerly ‘French America’ — the part that once was half of both Canada and the United States. They had in mind the beautiful quotation from the American historian John Finley: “How much less suggestive these rivers would be if the French had not been there first, with their bravery and spirit of adventure.”

But crossing North America was not enough for the young Raspail. Two years later, he traded in his canoe for a car and travelled from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Since then, Raspail had remained fascinated by the customs and traditions of the Native American tribes of North and South America. An astute and attentive observer, he meditated on their disappearance. His reflections, however, had nothing to do with the ‘woke’ repentance and guilt of today’s progressives. Raspail was, in fact, a conservative and it was precisely out of an understanding of conservatism that he mourned the disappearance of the natives in the face of modernity — in the same way that he lamented the absorption and dissolution of ‘old Europe’ through integration and immigration.

The memory of these American journeys never left him. At home, behind his desk, he kept an old poster in English: “Indian Reserve — Notice to Trespassers.” Of course, the Indians dearest to his heart were the Alakalufs of Tierra del Fuego. In February 1951, while sailing on a Chilean Navy ship, Raspail caught a glimpse nearby of a poor canoe carrying an entire Alakaluf family — and he was seized by a vision of men from this tribe canoeing in that same way over the centuries, separated only by a thousand — or perhaps 10,000 — years. He went on to dedicate many of his books to such tribesmen and their natural landscapes: Qui se souvient des hommes (1986), Pêcheurs de lunes (1990), Adiós, Tierra del Fuego (2001), and, above all, the unmissable Moi, Antoine de Tounens, roi de Patagonie (1981).

       

This last work formed the foundation of Raspail’s ‘mythology.’ The novel — inspired by real events and written in the first person — narrates the adventures of a French jurist, Antoine de Tounens, who, in the middle of the 19th century, set out to carve out a kingdom for himself in Patagonia. He set sail, eager to bring royal freedom to the tribes of that place in the face of the Chilean and Argentinean governments. He was subsequently recognized as the ‘King of Patagonia’ by a few Mapuche caciques and reigned successfully for two years (1860-1812) before returning to France in penury. But his crazy dream was an inspiration to many.

Raspail’s novel about the tragic King of Patagonia was a bestseller. In the epilogue, the author even paid tribute to King Antoine’s panache. Affirming that “this kingdom is eternal,” Raspail proclaimed himself “Consul General of Patagonia.” What was perhaps originally intended as a joke then met with a tremendous enthusiastic response and for decades afterwards, people made requests — some serious, some in jest — to Raspail for “Patagonian naturalization!” The requests began in earnest, however, in 1981, right after the socialist left came to power in France. Tired of how things were going, many conservatives wanted to escape, preferring to live within a dream, seeking the promise of adventure in Raspail’s alternative homeland, choosing to escape into his literary refuge: the kingdom of Patagonia.

“Patagonia” thus became a sort of ‘password,’ and many French houses and cars began to be decorated with the colours of the Patagonian kingdom: blue, white, and green. Today there are several thousand French right-wingers — officers, priests, fathers — who are ‘Patagons.’ And it is the Patagonian flag — the one Tounens himself designed in 1860! — which covered the coffin of Jean Raspail on the day of his Requiem Mass. It is on this flag, placed at the bottom of his grave, that his daughter threw a handful of black sand from Tierra del Fuego on the day of the funeral, so emblematic of the importance of distance, travel, and geography to her father.

However, Raspail himself never rejected his true homeland — France — nor his physical roots in the West. Originally from the South of France, Jean Raspail always regretted not being a Breton. He was convinced that this region — France’s Celtic region — had kept its identity more than any other. Indeed, Brittany was the setting of several of his novels. In Sire (1994), Raspail even imagined a young, legitimist French king arriving clandestinely on a windy Breton coast (to be later crowned in Reims). It is in Brittany, too, that the fiction of the ‘kingdom of Patagonia’ survives, as seen in Le jeu du roi (1976).

Eternally fascinated by the sea, Raspail loved islands. In 1984, Jean Raspail and a group of Patagons symbolically invaded an island near Jersey to assert a purely fictitious “Patagonian sovereignty” in response to the Falklands War (the Falklands being off the coast of Patagonia). The affair even made the front page of the English press.

       

Raspail also took readers on various trips to both ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ islands — respectively, the West Indies and Hokkaido. In a way, the city-states of Medieval Europe were also islands — and these small states are plentiful in Raspail’s various novels. They remind us of the importance of the particular, of proximity, of rootedness. And they could be fictitious principalities (Valduzia), or real historical entities (the Pope’s States in Avignon), or even religious communities (Benedictine monasteries). It was also from the monastic ruins of a Scottish island (Iona) that the French royal pretender in Sire received the help of an old Jacobite supporter.

Such fortified places demonstrated the need for borders and frontiers. But as a traveller, Raspail spent his life crossing borders and frontiers. In this way, he was very much like the characters in the fictional aristocratic Pikkendorff family, whose various branches exist all over the world. Nevertheless, Raspail never ceased to proclaim the importance and grandeur of frontiers: without them, there can be no protection, no peace or security, no life.

In his most infamous book, Le Camp des saints (1972), it is a French Mediterranean beach, besieged by an armada of migrants, that serves as a border. Borders, however, can give way; and though the stranger who comes from across the border can sometimes be a friend, he can sometimes also be an invader. Raspail knew this well. At the same time, as an advocate for indigenous peoples everywhere, as a singer of songs representing the polyphonic diversity of the world, Raspail was not a racist. As a Westerner and a patriot, however, he knew that his civilization was in danger.

For us today, now lamenting his absence and faced with the depressing atmosphere of our decadent modern societies, what could be better than to open a book and to escape for a few moments into the world of Raspail’s dreams — to jump on horseback and ride off to conquer a Patagon kingdom, or explore a vast, snowy forest, or live a pioneer’s life? Adventures here, elsewhere, or within oneself, while living by the ethical code of a European rooted in the West and searching the horizon with his eyes: this is the lesson of Raspail.