Jean Giono: Colline (Hill of Destiny; later: Hill)
This was Giono’s first novel and the first of a trilogy. It deals with many of the themes to be found in his subsequent work, in particular the relationship between the peasant and the land and the pagan aspect of their life. It is set in a small and remote village in Provence, the area Giono came from. The village – described in French as débris de hameau (i.e. the debris of a hamlet) and in the English translation as remnants of a hamlet) is called Les Bastides Blanches. The English translation calls it White Houses, which is not inaccurate. However, bastides is a word used in Provence for a farmhouse. Indeed, one of the features of Giono’s writing is that he uses a lot of regional terms, which are highly colourful and expressive but which cannot, of course, be fully conveyed in translation.
There are, in fact, only four houses in this hamlet and a total of thirteen people or, as Giono puts it, twelve people plus Gagou. Gagou turned up three years ago. He is a simpleton, who more or less survives. The main characters are Gondran, his wife, Marguerite (whom he calls Gritte) and her father, Janet, the oldest, perhaps wisest and certainly the most cantankerous inhabitant. Other key inhabitants are Alexandre Jaume, who lives with his daughter Ulalie, César Maurras and Aphrodis Arbaud.
They make their living out of agriculture but also supplement it with hunting. At the beginning, for example, we meet a wild boar (we see the village from its perspective). Jaume fires at it and misses. However, the key issue at the beginning of the book is Janet. He has always been difficult. Indeed, he came to the village because all the other farms in the region had rejected him as he fought with everybody. He is now the oldest and certainly the most knowledgeable inhabitant. He is also ill and getting worse so much so that they have to move his bed downstairs, so he can sleep by the hearth. He gives his daughter a hard time and is always complaining about her. He starts hallucinating. For example, he starts seeing snakes everywhere. He also predicts that the hill of the title, just by the village, will rise up.
Is it his visions that foresee what is wrong or is it because of him that things start going wrong? Or is it because of the cat? Jaume has seen the cat in the wood. At first he watches, then he realises what it is and plans to shoot it but is unable do so. The cat has been seen before and always presages disaster. It was seen just before he 1907 earthquake. It was seen before the major storm that caused flooding. It was seen just before the lightning killed Maurras’ father. In short, if the cat is seen, something bad is going to happen. The men abandon their agriculture and, without telling the women, try to track it down, but without success.
Bad things do happen. There is a storm and, the next day everything seem very silent. The men are worried. Then they notice that the spring, from which they get their water, seems to have dried up. It was Janet who found this spring some years ago. Everybody had said that there was no water there but Janet persisted and was proved right. But now it has dried up. They dig it up but find no water at all. Initially, there is wine to drink but they cannot live on that alone. However, someone notices that Gagou goes off every night and comes back muddy. He must have found water.
The next night they follow him. Giono gives us a wonderful description of their journey, as they pass through abandoned villages, victims of a cholera epidemic, and hear strange footsteps seemingly following them, till they arrive at another abandoned village, where there clearly is a spring.
As we have seen these people still live a pagan life, believing in spirits, strange cats, mysterious beings and so on. But they are also very much in touch with their land. There is a key scene, where Gondran is working on his land when he sees a lizard. He instinctively attacks it and kills it, then bitterly regrets doing so, when he sees its blood pouring out. It is a life and a life he has unnecessarily taken. He buries the lizard. Indeed, he goes on to look around and sees the land as a living being. Perhaps even the stones are alive, and the rocky ground where he stands. “This earth! . . . what if she really is a living being, what if she really is one body?
But things continue to go wrong. A girl gets very sick. There is a serious fire, which causes a lot of damage. The cat comes back and settles down in Janet’s house, while the boar comes back and then goes. Janet is particularly unhelpful, suggesting that they are all doomed and offering no solution to their problems. He suggests that the hill is attacking them. Finally, the others realise that there is one cause, and one cause alone of their problems and that is Janet. Till they deal with him, they will have no peace.
This book is quite rightly considered one of the classics of French literature, as it skilfully shows the superstition of the peasants but, at the same time showing their connectedness to the land they live on and depend on. It shows that the land can be cruel and demanding and the peasants have to show it respect and respond to its whims. The inhabitants of Les Bastides Blanches live in a little world of their own. Apart from a brief visit from the doctor, there are no outsiders and the abandoned villages near them tells us how precarious their lives and livelihood are. There is a message – make peace with the land, live in harmony with it – and it is one that we have generally forgotten.
First published in French 1929 by Grasset
First English translation 1930 by Brentano’s
Translated by Jacques Le Clercq (Brentano’s); Paul Eprile (New York Review of Books)