146. The Society

Part 2 of the 'Circle' series. (Previously.)

THE INSTITUT MISTRAC WAS founded in 1924 on the shores of Lac Leman by the controversial pedagogue Roland Mistrac, whose radical theories emphasised the importance of monastic discipline, daily exercise, racial purity and devotion to art. All students in the Institut were assigned an art – poetry, painting or dance – to which they would devote almost half their school time. The school was, from the outset, one of the most exclusive schools in the world. All but thirteen of its students (the boursiers, so-called due to the scholarships, or bourses, that paid for their education) were from enormously wealthy families. The school’s main building was an immense château on the shores of Lac Leman that had been built in stages over hundreds of years, the most recent and transformative dating back to the 18th century and attributable to Henri de Marchand, a reclusive astronomer and mathematician who was obsessed with labyrinths, paradox and mnemonics. Although the building had since been thoroughly modernised, Henri’s spirit continued to haunt the building. It was rumoured that he had ruined himself by constructing, under the château, a perfect labyrinth, which still existed, although its entrance was unknown. The school’s library was the building’s original library: the mathematician had built himself a reading room so large and so grand that, three centuries later, it was still large enough to accommodate the library of a school of 400 students. It was decorated with classical scenes that, though fading in general and, in certain areas, discoloured with damp, had evidently once been luridly coloured: at the corners, cherubs and seraphim gazed lustily at one another, as if, as soon as they lights were out, they would resume their nightly cavorting. They had, presumably, originally been painted naked, and their nakedness had later been disguised by an evidently inferior artist with white loincloths. More curiously, the central ceiling was a trompe l’oeil of an evening sky in which, improbably, thirteen constellations twinkled brightly: the conventional twelve constellations, with drawings depicting their avatars alongside them, along with a thirteenth constellation, Ophiucus, which was represented by an Oriental snake-charmer. De Marchand, it seems, had been a prolific author. He had penned a history of labyrinths and several books on paradox, in which he identified thirteen varieties, most of which have subsequently been shown to be dilemmas, fallacies, oxymorons, antinomies and self-refuting ideas. He devised a mnemonic system so effective it was said it forced devotees to spend the rest of their lives in seclusion, overwhelmed by memory. As far as astronomy went, de Marchand had been more soothsayer than scientist, and had devoted his life to what has since become known as astrology, writing several books, most of which outlined or elaborated a conspiracy he had devised in which the Catholic Church was accused of suppressing the magical, pre-Christian properties of the number thirteen, which de Marchand believed was invested with certain healing powers. The number thirteen was a motif repeated throughout the building: there were thirteen windows on the front and back of each of the building’s three storeys, thirteen fireplaces, thirteen chimneys, and thirteen entrances. The thirteenth constellation had even lent its name to the Ophiucus Society, a secret society with a revolving membership strictly limited to thirteen. The Society, as it was known, had been created by Mistrac when the school had been founded and was a key part of his pedagogical method, which was predicated on the Hegelian master-slave dialectic. At least once a year, all students (other than the thirteen Society members) would be required to don black hoods with small eyeholes and gather in a hall, on one wall of which was a one-way mirror. From behind this mirror, the members of the Society would, through an intermediary, call out the names of thirteen students, whose successes and failures would, in turn, be celebrated or condemned. Roland Mistrac died in 1962. The Institut that bore his name continued another decade, but in 1973 it was closed following a scandal implicating a number of its students in a terrorist cell called the Circle. The Circle is believed to have been behind a wave of bombings of art galleries in Europe and further afield from October 1972 to August 1973, culminating in a foiled attempt to destroy Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo in Genoa’s Palazzo Rosso Museum. Most of the members of the Circle subsequently disappeared except for one, who is currently serving a life sentence in an Italian prison. They are all believed to have been former students at the Institut Mistrac, and very probably members of the Society.