• Yehoshua Paul

1952 - You Shall Know Them

1952. Stalemate in the Korean War. The ANC launches the Defiance Campaign. Jean Bruller (Vercors) writes You Shall Know Them. #bookquest.

War is ugly, so is Apartheid

The Korean War is at a stalemate. Both sides are still fighting, but little territory is exchanged. Large scale bombing of North Korea is continuing unabated, and armistice negotiations are stalled, giving everyone plenty of time to continue shooting while peace is being discussed. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) launches the Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws in protest of the recently enacted Apartheid Laws.

In 1950, the National Party in South Africa passes several laws aimed at a large scale reorganization of the country along racial lines. These laws include:

  • The Population Registration Act: South Africans are now classified and registered according to their racial category – black, white or coloured (mixed)

  • Group Areas Act: Racial groups are required to live and work in separate areas, which results in non-whites being forcibly removed from most of the country.

  • Immorality act: Sex between whites and non-whites becomes a criminal offense and carries with it a five-year prison sentence for men and a four-year prison sentence for women (six if they provoked the man).

In response, the ANC begins organizing demonstrations, mass actions, boycotts, strikes, and acts of civil disobedience, resulting in 8,000 people getting arrested, and many more losing their jobs.

The Defiance Campaign is the culmination of all these events. It is the largest scale non-violent multi-racial resistance ever seen in South Africa, under the leadership of both the ANC and the South African Indian Congress. Black participants in the campaign (called volunteers) burn their pass books. Other volunteers go into white-only areas and get arrested. Those who are arrested refuse to defend themselves in court leading to large-scale imprisonment.

The result of the campaign is that the United Nations takes notice and calls the Apartheid policy a "threat to peace". The National Party begins imposing stiffer penalties, and in 1953 will pass The Public Safety Act enabling the government to declare states of emergency for protesting against or supporting the repeal of a law. Meanwhile, the ANC’s membership increases by tens of thousands.

In the end, the goals of the Defiance Campaign were not met. However, the protests demonstrated large scale and growing resistance to Apartheid, a policy which will sadly continue until 1991. In the not-so-far future, the campaign will serve as an inspiration for civil- rights activists in the United States. In 1952, it helps reveal the timeliness of the messages Jean Bruller (Vercors) is trying to get across through You Shall Know Them.

“All of man’s troubles have arisen from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.” (Vercors)

Jean Marcel Adolphe Bruller (1902-1991) was a French author and Illustrator with two artistic identities.

Before World War II, he was a well-known illustrator whose satirical drawings are now collectors items. After, the war broke out and Germany occupied France, Bruller assumed a new identity “Vercors” and became one of the literary backbones of the resistance movements.

Vercors was an active member of the Maquis. During this period, he wrote his famous The Silence of the Sea, which became a symbol of mental resistance against the German occupiers. No publishing house was willing to publish the manuscript so, together with Pierre de Lescure, he founded Les Éditions de Minuit, and used it to distribute the book as well as other texts for the resistance movements.

After the war, when Vercors tried to characterize the Maquis’ struggle he realized that the resistance was “not so much for patriotism, but for human dignity”. However, “human dignity” was an abstract term, and he wanted a precise definition to clarify what he meant. While searching for a valid definition, Vercors discovered that there was no consensus among encyclopedias and reference works in the Western World as to what defines a human being. Numerous interviews with anthropologists, biologists and legal experts failed to yield him a satisfactory answer. In 1952 this resulted in You Shall Know Them – a satirical science fiction novel that explores what it is exactly that defines a human being.

“Above all, let’s hope we never take ourselves too seriously” (Vercors)

You Shall Know Them begins with the discovery of a corpse; a corpse for which the narrator apologies seeing as how that’s a rather trite way to open a story, but anyway it isn’t the narrator’s fault, and the corpse is only a small one.

The corpse in question belongs to an infant child. The father, Douglas Templemore, has already called up the doctor to confess, and the case is pretty clear cut. Only one unresolved issue is preventing the court from sending Templemore to prison – the baby has four arms.

The mother, Derry, is a member of the newly-discovered Tropis species – a missing link in human evolution. The Tropis share attributes with both apes and humans. On the one hand, they have four arms, a thin layer of fur, and an ape-like face. On the other hand, they carve hand-axes, bury their dead, smoke meat, and their females are capable of forming some rather distracting relationships with married men. This leads to some interesting questions:

  1. Do they have a soul?

  2. Can they be used as free labor?

  3. Is killing them murder?

These questions can only be resolved after humanity (or the British legal system) decides for itself, once and for all, what it is that defines a human being. Until then, Templemore’s sentence can wait.

The book itself, while touching on some serious issues, is really a light-hearted comedy. This light-heartedness both mocks the ridiculousness of some of the moral dilemmas (should the tropis be baptized?), and also clearly manages to communicate the importance of the definition the story so desperately seeks (is eating the Tropis considered cannibalism?) The comedic aspect also helps the book flow more freely and makes it a very easy read.

Personally, I enjoyed this book a lot, and am happy I managed to acquire a copy. I had a hard time putting the book down, and I found myself frequently smiling while reading. While, I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone, I think people who enjoy biology and philosophy will enjoy this book the most, as the book touches on many issues related to these fields (such as why the definition of a human cannot be answered by biology alone).

All-in-all a worthy bookquest.

What is a bookquest?

In Sefer HaOmer, a bookquest is a book-related task that I need to perform before I can review a book. For example, making a trip to the National Library to lay my hands on a copy of a Great Depression era book. Or purchasing one of two copies available on the internet of a used book written by an author whose biographical information I was only able to gather from his memorial page. Or solving the mystery of why the English translation of a book contains more chapter than the Hebrew translation.

You shall know them became a bookquest when I discovered that it is one of three translations of Les Animaux dénaturés. The other two translations are:

  • Borderline (1953)

  • The murder of the missing link (1958)

If the book was translated three times, I needed to know the differences between the translations, and more importantly which version I should read. This led me to ask a question on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange, where I learned that the book was translated once by Rita Barisse, the second wife of Vercors, as You Shall Know Them. The translation was subsequently republished two more times under a different title.

With that answer in hand, I was able to order You Shall Know Them from AbeBooks with a clean conscience, and wait impatiently for the book to arrive. While waiting, I discovered a copy in an online library (thanks to Roni Seniora Argaman), and that copy contained a Book of the Month club review so my patience was rewarded.





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