On the beach is the title of a novel by the naturalized Australian English writer Nevil Shute. Published in 1957, it was translated into French by Pierre Singer and published by Éditions Stock under the literal title, Sur la plage, in 1958, then reissued ten years later under another title, Le last rivage. The translation is more evocative. Because it is death that is all about. The death of humanity.
In fact, this last sentence sums up the peculiarity of this post-apocalyptic book. The end of humanity is not described in a series of violent and devastating explosions; these have already taken place. The story takes place in 1964, in southern Australia, Melbourne and its surroundings. World War III - although the expression is never used - is over and the Earth is contaminated, irreparably to mankind. Even if not everyone wants to believe it, the end is announced, inevitable. The last survivors are the inhabitants of the southern hemisphere. This latency introduced by Nivel Shute is due to the slow mixing of the atmosphere. The war took place in the Northern Hemisphere, between the United States, USSR, China. But the whole world is paying the consequences. The causes remain relatively obscure, even for the protagonists themselves, for who will be the historians of the last moments of human history?
Peter observed nervously:
“But this is something historic. It would have to be written down somewhere. Does anyone write a story about this time?
"Not that I know of," replied John Osborne. I will find out. But, after all, I don’t see what it would mean to write a story that no one else will read.
- We should write something, all the same said the American. Even though there are only a few months left to read it. " He took a moment, then added, “I'd like to read a story from this last war. I got into it for a while, but I have absolutely no idea what happened. "
“But then, how do you explain the attacks launched by the Russians from Washington and London?” Peter asked, after a moment.
John Osborne and the captain stared at him.
“The Russians never bombed Washington,” Dwight said. We finally had the proof. ”
Peter looked at them in turn:
“I mean - the first of all.
- Perfectly. The first one. They were Russian long-range bombers, 11,626, but manned by an Egyptian crew. They left Cairo.
- Are you sure of that?
- Absolutely. We captured the one who landed in Puerto Rico on the way back. It was only after we bombed Leningrad, Odessa, and nuclear facilities in Siberia that we found out that he was Egyptian. It must have gone badly that day.
- Did I understand correctly that we bombed Russia by mistake? ”
It was so horrible it hardly seemed believable.
John Osborne replied:
“It’s the truth, Peter. It has never been publicly admitted, but it is the plain truth. The first bomb was the bomb on Naples. Those were the Albanians, as everyone knows. Then there was the bomb on Tel Aviv. No one knows who threw this one, at least to my knowledge. After that the British and the Americans intervened and carried out a demonstration flight over Cairo. The next day the Egyptians blew all their available bombers into the air, six left for Washington, seven for London. One plane managed to reach Washington, two managed to fly over London. After that, there weren't many American or British statesmen left in this world. "
“The bombers were Russian, and I heard they had distinctive Russian markings. It's entirely possible.
- Good Lord ! cried the Australian. So, we bombed Russia.
“So after that Russia and the Western powers were in a state of war. When did China join the dance? ”
The captain replied:
“I don't think anyone knows exactly. In my opinion, China took the opportunity and launched rocket and radiation attacks against Russia. But all of this is just a guess. It was not long before communications were cut off. All we know is that in most countries, command passed to junior officers after all the statesmen were killed. It's very difficult to stop a war under these conditions. "
“It’s a great pity. But don't go after the Russians. It was not the great nations that started this affair. They are the little ones, the Irresponsible. ” "
The geopolitical explanation is not necessarily realistic, and cobalt bombs, once envisaged, were never developed. The important thing is not there. The novel is first and foremost a denunciation of the Cold War and the nuclear risk it poses to all humanity, a global risk. The war is not told, until mentioned. No noise, just the silence that settles everywhere. The silence of a death which descends, month after month, day after day, which approaches and which tightens.
"'Why is it taking so long Dwight? Why can't the wind blow directly, and let it be over and over?
"It's not that hard to understand, actually," he replied. In each hemisphere, the winds swirl in large convolutions between the pole and the equator. There is a circulatory system of winds in the northern hemisphere and another in the southern hemisphere. But what separates them is not the equator you see on a world map, but an element called the Pressure Equator, which moves north and south with the seasons. In January, all of Borneo and Indonesia came under the Northern System regime, but by July the rift moved north, so India, Siam, and everything south of this line pass into the southern system. So in January the northerly winds carry radioactive dust to Malaysia, say. Then, in July, with that region in the southern system, our own winds pick up this dust and carry it here. That's why they come to us so slowly.
- And can't we do anything?
- Absolutely nothing. These are things that are beyond human possibilities. You have to accept them as they are.
"I won't accept them," she cried vehemently. It is not fair. Not a single bomb, hydrogen or cobalt, or any other kind, has been dropped in the southern hemisphere. We have nothing to do with it all. Why should we die because other countries, nine or ten miles from where we live, wanted to go to war? It is terribly unfair.
“Yes, that's terribly unfair,” he said. But it's like that."
There was a pause, then she resumed irritably:
“It's not that I'm afraid of dying, Dwight. We all have to spend there one day or another. These are all dreams that I will not be able to fulfill ... She turned to him: I will never go outside Australia. All my life I have wanted to see the rue de Rivoli. It's probably this romantic name that appeals to me. A stupid idea, no doubt, because I suppose that this street is a street like any other. But this is what I wanted, and I will never see her. Because there is no more Paris now, no more New York, no more London. "
He smiles at her:
“The rue de Rivoli may still be there, with nice things on the shelves, just like before. I don't know if Paris received a bomb or not. Maybe nothing has changed, maybe the sun still shines on this street and keeps it looking the way you imagine it. This is how I like to think of all these places. The only difference is that there is no one left alive. " "
The rest of the world is only seen through a periscope of a US nuclear submarine taking refuge in Australia and carrying out some reconnaissance missions.
“They approached Cairns on the surface, but did not come out of the hull, the radiation level being too high. They had previously crossed the Great Barrier, spending a night in cloaks because Dwight found it dangerous to navigate at night in these waters, where lighthouses and light buoys offered insufficient guarantees. When they finally spotted Green Island and approached land, the town looked absolutely normal to them. The sun bathed the shore, and in the distance loomed the chain of the Atherton Mountains. They could see, through the periscope, the streets lined with shops and shaded by palm trees, a hospital, pretty one-story villas built on stilts, cars parked in the streets. They went up the river to the docks. Here, not much to see, except a few fishing boats. Nothing abnormal. There were no ships alongside the docks. Although they were very close to land, their field of vision was limited, as the periscope was not much higher than the docks, and the warehouses obscured the view. Silence reigned in the docks, silence on Sundays or holidays, but in the past there would have been a continual coming and going of small boats.
Two days later, they arrived in Port Darwin and came to rest in the port. Here they couldn't see anything except the wharf, the roof of Government House and a portion of the Darwin Hotel. They circled around the fishing boats anchored in the harbor, made calls and examined them through the periscope. They learned nothing, but from the state of affairs they were able to draw a conclusion: when the end had come, the people were dead cleanly. "
Whether the characters annoy or not, a great melancholy arises from the murmurs of the last loves of humanity. Because death remains our destiny. This is how it is possible to understand the first name of the main heroine, Moira, not in the original Hebrew sense, but in the Greek sense.
Nevil Shute's novel was adapted very quickly to the cinema, by Stanley Kramer. The film's release resulted in what appears to have been the world premiere. On December 17, 1959, the film was screened in nearly twenty capitals and major cities of the world: Amsterdam, Berlin, Caracas, Chicago, Johannesburg, Lima, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Melbourne, Moscow, New York, Paris , Rome, Stockholm, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington, Zurich. This film is therefore doubly global: through the subject itself, namely the risk of destruction of humanity in a nuclear war with global consequences; and by the screening that transcended the East / West divide, even though the film, presented in Moscow to just over a thousand viewers selected by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, was not shown in the rest of the country.
The film was militant. To those who were frightened by the subject, Stanley Kramer replied: “The bomb exists. The destruction of the world is a frightening and imminent possibility. Not to make this film would be to deny the existence of the terrible cataclysm of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to deny the existence of the H2 bomb and strontium-90. I cannot deny all this, he added, nor Khrushchev. Eisenhower or the two billion people who live on this earth. The Last Shore is for them a warning and a prayer for life to continue on this planet. "
The last shot is a message from the director to the audience. In a Melbourne emptied of its inhabitants, a banner continues to float in the street with the following message: "There is still time ... brother". In 1959, it was not too late to prevent nuclear war and prevent the end of mankind.