World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Chameleon”

The Chameleon“, Frois Froisland, translated by Nils Flaten, 1930.

This is not the only doppelganger story in Froisland’s The Man with the X-ray Eyes & Other Stories from the Front. There is also “I Stood Looking at My Own Corpse”. It, however, is a completely naturalistic tale with no fantastic content. This is a more borderline case.

The story opens:

A man may have a double. As a rule, when we say that, we have two persons in mind. I have thought a little about this matter. I believe that a man may be his own double.

The chameleon in question is narrator Froisland’s friend and fellow journalist (and, seemingly, a lot of other things), Kinzo Yuratoku.

There are some obvious things tying the story into its World War One series. Froisland and Yuratoku first meet in the spring of 1916 as they are taking a train to the front to observe the ongoing Battle of Verdun. Another scene has Froisland and Yuratoku sheltering from an air raid by the piers of Pont des Arts across the river Seine in Paris. Froisland is quite accurate in noting the destruction on Paris dealt out by the massive Big Bertha artillery piece, Gotha bombers, and Zeppelin raids.

He is not so accurate on the timing. The so-called Big Bertha artillery pieces were mass-produced. They did not shell Paris. The so-called Paris Gun was also sometimes known, incorrectly, as the Big Bertha by the French press. However, Paris does not seem to have been shelled before March 23, 1918. This story seems to have such shelling occurring in 1916. Zeppelins were dropping bombs over Paris in 1916. Gotha bombers started bombing French targets in 1917. No plot point hinges on these dates so Froisland’s usual attention to historical accuracy may have been hurt by a faulty memory.

The doppelganger aspect of the story hinges on what Yuratoku is.

The encounters of Froisland and Yuratoku are as follows.

On a train to Verdun, Yuratoku speaks in bad French — until alone with Froisland. Then it’s good French and a knowledgeable conversation about the “conflict of languages”. Yuratoku exhibits a very good knowledge of Froisland’s native Norway.

A week later, in Paris, Yuratoku is a cheaply dressed, stuttering street peddler of fans and dolls though they discuss Norwegian literature.

Weeks later, in an expensive French restaurant, Prince Yuratoku is elegantly dressed, surrounded by vaguely familiar and influential men, some European. Some call him the “Prince of Darkness”. “Prince” seems a nickname; Yuratoku is a journalist who studied religion in the Sorbonne and was a pupil of the philosopher Henri Bergson.

A non-encounter occurs a few days later when the narrator visits Yuratoku’s reputed apartment which he doubts Yuratoku ever lived in.

A month later, during an air raid, Froisland huddles under a pier of the Pont des Arts. He’s shaken down by a group of toughs which includes Yuratoku.

Froisland encounters Yuratoku in the office of the French foreign secretary Briand. Froisland is there to protest his press credentials being denied because he has been allegedly involved with suspected spies, namely Yuratoku. Briand makes a call. Froisland gets his credentials.

Around Christmas 1916, Froisland goes to a theater to see “The X-ray man!”. (He is not “The Man with the X-ray Eyes” of the book’s concluding story, but it’s an example of the linking Froisland does between stories.) The man can seem to read minds, view the contents of letters in pockets. It is Yuratoku. “I am everywhere, sirs!”, he boasts.

After the war is over, Froisland and Yuratoku spend two days in London. Yuratoku takes his leave without warning.

In 1928, Froisland reads of the death of “Sub-Secretary of State, Professor Kinzo Yuratoku” in the Tokyo earthquake of 1923. Yet, he doubts it. He thinks the Prince of Darkness is still alive in some northern clime. “I look forward with joy to my next meeting with him.”

There are two streams of weirdness here: the nature of Yuratoku and the nature of his connections.

Is he a single man or, somehow, two men or, as the beginning suggests, two personalities in one body? Does he have psychic powers?

And is Yuratoku a spy? Are his psychic powers the result of non-paranormal espionage? Is he part of some international cabal?

Froisland hints and suggests but nothing definitive, performing a sort of anti-journalistic trick of generating mysteries and not answers.

That Yuratoku is Japanese brings up something almost forgotten today: Japan’s role in the Great War.

Japan was a belligerent nation on the Allied side. It besieged and captured German forces in China. For the first and only time in its history, it sent a naval force into the Mediterranean. It also aided its recent enemy, Russia.

It is thought that Japan entered the war to take advantage of British weakness in the Pacific Ocean. In effect, Britain, before the war, was already relying on the American navy to secure trade in the Pacific.

Japan hoped to expand its empire after the close of the war, to be rewarded by the Allies. It was not.

And Japan’s resentment over that was one of the causes of the Asian half of World War Two.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: Yes.


More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

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