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Jean Giono: Un de Baumugnes (Lovers are Never Losers)

Let’s start with the English title. I continue to be amazed/shocked/horrified by some of the translated titles publishers use but this must be one of the worse. There are several reasons for this. The first and obvious one is that it bears no relationship to the original French. The original French could easily be translated as The Man from Baumugnes or something similar. Presumably, the publisher threw his/her hands up in the air and said Shock! Horror! US readers are not going to understand what Baumugnes means. No, they are not for the very simple reason it does not mean anything. It is an entirely fictitious place name – for the French as well as for English speakers. Moreover, readers of Giono’s novels in English are likely to find that exoticism an attraction and not a turn-off. Secondly, the title bears no relation to the content of the book. Thirdly, this title makes the book sound like some soppy romance novel. Fourthly and lastly, lovers often are losers. Just ask Romeo and Juliet. Rant over.

This is the second book in Giono’s Pan trilogy. The main character is Amédée, an itinerant farm worker in the South of France, who is no longer as young as he was. He goes around from farm to farm, offering his services. One day, he meets a younger man, Albin, at the local bar, who does not look very happy. He tells Amédée that has had enough and wants to leave. He was there three years ago, where he met Louis. Louis was a rough man from Marseilles, with the word Merde (Shit) tattooed on the palm of his hand. Nevertheless, they became friends, even though Louis’ treatment of women disgusted Albin.

One day, they saw a cart pull up. A farmer was there with his daughter. Albin was immediately taken by the young woman but so was Louis. Albin finds out that she is called Angèle Barbaroux and is from a local farm called La Douloire. However, he also learns that while he has been too shy to approach her, Louis has seduced her and they are planning to run away together. We later learn that he takes her to Marseilles and forces her into prostitution. She has a baby but does not know who the father is

We also learn more about Albin and Baumugnes. The people from Baumugnes had originally lived elsewhere but this was the time of religious wars in France. As Albin’s ancestors are not of the same religion as everyone else, i.e. not Catholic, they had had their tongues cut out to stop them singing their religious songs. They fled into the mountains and, to play music, invented a type of harmonica which they push into their mouths and play with the remains of their tongue. Their descendants who, of course, had full tongues, have continued to play this style of harmonica or monica, as they call it.

Amédée is determined to help Albin find Angèle and so he sets off for La Douloire, to see if they need a seasonal farm worker. When he finally gets there, he meets Clarius, the farmer, who tries to drive him away. However, Clarius’ wife, Philomène, persuades her husband that he is needed, not least because Clarius has a bad arm which, a couple of days later, is revealed to be worse than thought and immobilises Clarius, leaving only Amédée and Saturnin, the slightly odd permanent farm worker. However, as far as Amédée can tell, there is no-one else there. Then, gradually, his suspicion is aroused, as there seems to be some evidence of another person living there. Amédée, who has left Albin at another farm, hurries off to inform Albin.

This can be seen as a fairly straightforward love story, with its attendant problems and, indeed,that is, in part, what it is. However, first of all, as with the other books in the trilogy, by setting it in a remote part of Southern France, where civilisation is there but well concealed, it gives it a distinctly exotic feel. Giono’s skill, as well as story-telling, is to convey the sense of his landscape. His descriptions of the surroundings, both by him as author and as seen by others, is superb, more so, I suspect, in French, where he uses archaic and regional words to convey the feeling of a somewhat strange landscape. As for the love story, it is not seen from the point of view of the two lovers, who are almost peripheral to the story, but from the point of view of a third party, Amédée, a man who we know likes the opposite sex but who comments Les femmes, voyez-vous, ça complique beaucoup la vie [Women, you see, complicate life.]. In other words he takes a pragmatic view of women but love does not rate highly in his evaluation.

I thought that this was another very fine book from Giono. It is very French or, at least, very Southern French, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but a book that tells its story well and combines it with a colourful atmosphere, an interesting view of a life probably long since gone and well-drawn characters.

First published in French 1929 by Gallimard
First English translation 1931 by Brentano’s