Saturday, 13 February 2010

"To The Slaughterhouse" by Jean Giono

A little off-topic this, as Giono was of course a French writer, despite his Italian sounding name, but this is an English translation published by Peter Owen in 2004.

Giono was both a contemporary and a friend of Pagnol, and they were both rustic writers, describing the countryside of their beloved Provence, but there the similarities end. In fact, Giono is a completely different sort of writer. I have read Pagnol in French, and he's not too difficult, but I'm not sure I would want to try Giono's French. It is much spikier, and features much more argot.

With Pagnol, war is something that happens offstage, to which characters depart and from which they return. For Giono, who was later imprisoned for his anti-war views (ironically, shortly before the French capitulated in 1940), the horrors of war are very much something to be described, down to the level of the individual dug-out and the colours and consistency of all the various bodily fluids and body parts which may be found there. This book leaves us in no doubt at all that war is hell.

Their attitude to nature is very different too. Pagnol paints dreamy bucolic landscapes, in which nature is a bountiful mother who, properly treated and respected, will provide lavishly for all her children. For Giono, nature is about mud and blood, a treacherous enemy who will unleash flood, drought, pestilence or famine at the drop of a hat, an adversary that must be constantly feared and against whom every possible precaution must be taken.

Giono is a fine writer and I am sad and a little ashamed that I have not come across him before (I finally stumbled across him on the shelves of Swiss Cottage library, where, incidentally, Elaine of Random Jottings fame used to work). I was reminded constantly while reading this book of Silone's Abruzzo Trilogy, and can really find no better way of describing either the quality or the feel of To The Slaughterhouse than that. It is a sort of French version of the Abruzzo Trilogy.

Published by Peter Owen, London. ISBN 0-7206-1212-8

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