I have been living with Martial de Mégremut, on the island his great-uncle required he inhabit, for several days. And, nights. For it is during the night that so much of the action seems to take place. People come and go, quietly, quickly, in the night. They suddenly appear, and suddenly disappear, and Martial often follows them through the brush, or the snow, on a muddy path which is at best obscure.
Your great-uncle Mr. Cornélius, in making you his heir (under certain conditions, moreover, as you will see) has left you but a modest inheritance:
On the mainland, along the river, two hundred fifty acres of barren ground. Nothing grows there except a little grass for the sheep. Of course, you will find a flock of one hundred head. It is not much. But Mr Cornélius eked out a living from them. It is true you will also have the island and the house of La Redousse, unproductive, alas! You will also have Balandran. He tends the sheep. He fishes. He hunts. A singular man, as you will discover. Completely devoted to Mr. Cornélius, down to his marrow; he is thought to have a harsh character.
How could he have lived without Balandran? This quiet, incredibly strong, yet small, man brings Martial his dinner. His breakfast. His coffee. He cleans with great efficiency and prepares the small iron bed with sheets smelling of soap.
I loved the little whitewashed hut in which Martial dwells. It has a bed, a desk, a chair, a fireplace and a storeroom. There are no books, no diversions of any kind other than his contemplative thoughts as he sits before the fire. This is where he must live for three months before the rest of the will’s stipulations are revealed to him.
During his stay he befriends Bréquillet, Balandran’s dog:
I returned to the fire.While I had been looking the other way, Bréquillet had slipped onto the hearthstone. He was resting there, his muzzle on his two black paws, relaxed but alert…Bréquillet sighed with well-being. Long tremors ran along his spine as he closed his eyes to savor the pleasures of a warm hearth and the closeness of man, creator of fire, friend of dogs.
During his stay, he learns of the ram, Sacristan:
A great ram, a male leader a sire. I had never before seen one so tall or so strong. His loins were huge, thick; his chest deep. Tawny wool rolled in thick curls from his rump to his warm, vibrant neck. Around his pointy ears, his horns spiraled three times, vigorously crowning his thick, woolly temples. His wide, hairy brow was boldly thrust forward, ready for combat; his eyes sparkled.
“This is Sacristan,” Balandran said solemnly, “our master ram.”
I was overcome with emotion. “Yes, I said to Balandran. “I remember. After the rain, we were supposed to go to the land, to see him.”
The rain. It rains constantly on the island:
An almost unearthly light radiated from the whitewashed ceilings and walls. Meanwhile, it was raining outside. Under the wind’s thrusts, the rain had begun again, and I heard showers lashing the roof. For the window, I could see the clayey soil of the clearing, where drops of water splattered. Nearby, elms, enormous birches, and giant willows rose. Their trucks held up a vast tangle of leafless limbs whose tips touched the storm. They tossed despairingly against the gray sky, heralding winter.
Can you not sense the mood? The almost gothic quality of the island, its inhabitants, and even the weather? Henri Bosco has done a masterful job of creating a sense of place, which for me, was even more significant than the trial of enduring on an island, virtually alone, while waiting to find out what else needs to be done to gain an inheritance. (It was a grave deed that Martial must accomplish, one so subtly described it was almost easy for me to miss.)
I loved this book, for the beautiful writing (and translation!) allowing me to contemplate the slow pace that we ourselves are now living during the self isolation of the CoronaVirus pandemic. It is a time of seclusion that proves Martial’s worth, as he must overcome severe adversity and his fears. It is a time that tests our own strength as well, in which perhaps we, too, would be well-served to sit quietly by the fire, calmly reviewing our lives.
Malicroix was published on April 7, 2020. It was my great pleasure to read it with Dorian (@ds228), Frances (@nonsuchbook), Grant (@GrantRintoul), Nat (@Gnatleech) and Kim (@joiedevivre9). Thank you, nyrb for the copy to read, and Joyce Zonana (@JoyceZonana) for an exquisitely wrought translation.