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Youenn Gwernig: La grande tribu [The Large Tribe]

This book was written in French but still has very much a Breton sensibility. It is presumably at least semi-autobiographical, recounting Gwernig’s own life in the United States. The title shows that it is about the large tribe of like-minded people, primarily, though not exclusively, those of Celtic origin. Bretons, of course, abound but the Scottish and Irish are also there. Ange Rosso, the Gwernig doppelganger/narrator, is living in New York at the start of the novel. He is living with Mildred Moynihan who is Irish. They had met at an Irish bar when he had seen her crying while her cousin sang an Irish song. Ange had joined in with the Breton version of the same song. After, inevitably, a lot of drinks and a lot more singing, the two came together and, a few weeks later, she had moved in with him. There is something of a conflict in that he is chronically untidy and she is impeccably tidy but they manage to struggle along. Unfortunately, her mother, Lady Moynihan, is ill and Mildred decides to take her back to Kerry to spend her last days breathing the Kerry air. Ange is left alone and misses Mildred very much.

However, Ange is a Celt, so he is not going to be on his own very much. Friends seem to turn up out of the blue (of both sexes). The weather helps as it is a very snowy New York, so he cannot go to work (he is a designer for an advertising company) so going out eating drinking and, of course, singing, is very much on the table. His friend Antoine, an artist (Ange is also an amateur artist) and bon vivant, comes round with his latest conquest, called Erika. By chance, his previous girlfriend was also called Erika and the three of them meet up with Erika Mark 1 and others and Ange, while thinking of Erika Mark 1 as a sister also has romantic feelings for her. Will they or won’t they, runs through the novel. Of course, he is thinking of and missing Mildred all the time.

We get to learn much of his previous life, told to Erika Mark 1. He had been brought up in Brittany and, as a young lad, had been in the resistance. Towards the end of the war, his group had ambushed some Germans but most of his group had been killed, though he had managed to shoot his potential killer and escape. A girl had been shot but not killed and he ran to get help but was arrested by the French forces. An American – Frank – who speaks Breton but not French rescues him and it is Frank who will eventually bring him over to the United States. Meanwhile he works with Frank, while his troop is stationed in Brittany. However, after the war things go badly. The postwar euphoria soon dies for the Bretons, as their culture is suppressed in favour of French. Ange plays Breton music in a group but when one of the players in the group, and his best friend, goes off to the Algerian War and is soon killed, Ange decides that it is time to go to the United States.

Apart from the Ange/Erika and Ange/Mildred situation and the recounting of his war adventures, there is not much of a plot to this novel. Indeed, it is more of a tribute to the spirit of the community or tribe, particularly the Celtic tribe, as well as the difficulty of romantic relations. We do see the issue of violent opposition – a cousin of Mildred runs guns for the IRA and one of Ange’s friends plans to bomb the French consulate – and we also see how Bretons are despised by the French. When one of Ange’s friends goes to the French Embassy and ask for information about the Breton language, she is told that there is no such language. Indeed, the opening quote, by Francisque Sarcey, sums up the situation. Les paysans Bretons sont si ignorants qu’ils croient en l’influence de la lune sur les marées. [Breton peasants are so ignorant that they believe in the influence of the moon on the tides.]. An enjoyable if not great novel.

Publishing history

First published by Grasset in 1982
No English translation