The hill is “but a fold in the broad flesh of Mount Lure”, but in Jean Giono’s hands it becomes a formidable beast. Mentioned no less than 66 times in this book of a mere 144 pages, the hill is personified as a foe that the people who inhabit the four little houses nestled in the Bastides cannot seem to overcome.
“Before long we’ll be completely on our own. The whole hill has turned against us, the whole huge body of the hill. This hill that’s curved like a yoke that’s going to smash our heads. I see it. Now I see it. Now I know what I’ve been afraid of since this morning.”
Fear is a growing force within the novel; it comes subtly and relentlessly with each page turned. It came in the form of a cat (vaguely reminiscent to me of the cat in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), but also from the paralyzed body of Janet found almost drowned in the stream, and from the drying of the spring so that the people are without water, and from the sickness of little Marie, and finally from the fire which consumes the simpleton, Gagou.
“Do I have what it takes to wrestle the rage of these hills?”
It is a question fraught with ambiguity. Do hills have rage? Do any of us have what it takes to wrestle the forces which we feel work against us? Who, in fact, is stronger: nature or the efforts of mankind against it? I am reminded of this passage in Genesis:
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:17-19
Janet does not acknowledge that the ground is cursed outright, but he does point at a greater power over it. He tells Jaume, who has come to seek his wisdom over what to do about the calamities which have befallen the inhabitants:
“You want to know what you need to do, only you don’t even know what kind of world you’re living in. You realize something’s against you, but you don’t know what. And all this because you’ve been staring at what’s around you without really seeing it. I bet you’ve never given any thought to the great power? The great power of the animals, plants, and rock. Earth isn’t made for you alone to keep on using the way you’ve been used to, on and on, without getting some advice from the master every once in a while. You’re like a tenant farmer-and then there’s the landlord. The landlord in his handsome, six-button jacket, his brown corduroy vest, his sheepskin coat. Do you know him, the landlord?”
Giono presents a theme we’re familiar with today, using the earth as though her resources will never end. As though man can take what has been given without any thought of its cessation.
And, I’m intrigued with the mention of the landlord from Janet, who surely recognizes an authority greater than his own even if he does not call it God; who surely recognizes the need to take care of all that we’ve been given, be it animals, plants, rocks, or even one another.
In their minds, the paralyzed elder, Janet, has ultimately become the reason for the evil that they have encountered. In killing him the inhabitants of the hill have fought against the forces of nature they feel have come to overpower them. Oddly enough, after his death, the water from the fountain begins to flow once again.
The Hill is a little book with much to contemplate. The questions are deep, the writing beautiful. How I loved the personification that Giano uses; phrases such as these: “A mulberry tree makes cooing sounds as it’s tousled by the moon’s wan hand,” make the pages sing for me. Even while I tried to muddle through exactly what it is he intends to say.
I read this novel with Dorian of Eiger, Munch & Jungfrau; Scott of Seraillon, and Gary of 1st Reading. There is also a beautiful review at The Bookbinder’s Daughter, as well as Shelf Love and nonsuch book.