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Jean Giono: Le Hussard sur le toit (US/UK: The Horseman on the Roof; UK: The Hussar on the Roof)

Most of Giono’s novels were set, more or less, in the contemporary period but, for this one, he went back to the 1830s. Moreover, unusually for Giono, the hero is not French but Italian – Angelo Pardi, a member of the Carbonari and colonel of the Hussars (hence the French title of the book). (Giono was, of course, of Italian origin.) Angelo is fleeing Italy because he has killed an Austrian officer in a duel (much of Northern Italy was under Austrian occupation at the time). Most of this information we do not learn about till well into the book. He arrives in Provence, masquerading as a merchant, and as he rides through Provence, we get Giono’s usual lyrical descriptions of the countryside, where humans are few and far between.

However, when he reaches the towns, he finds them in a middle of a heat wave and, it would seem, several people have died. He sets off again, crossing a mountain pass and comes across a village where, to his surprise, he can hear the domestic animals making a lot of noise and can see a mass of birds. When he arrives, he sees what reminds him of a battlefield, with bodies scattered everywhere and, in some cases the birds and a dog eating the bodies. He has no idea what has happened but wanders around, dazed. His horse escapes. As he is about to set off on foot, a young man brings it back. The young man is a doctor and tells him that the village seems to have been hit by the a cholera pandemic. Angelo helps him – a boy turns up asking for help – but, by the next morning, both the boy and doctor have died.

Angelo continues his ride through Provence, encountering cholera wherever he goes. Giono gives us a very detailed account of the cholera pandemic, as seen through the eyes of Angelo. He comes across various towns and villages where the cholera has struck. In some cases, much of the population has been wiped out. In many cases, he witnesses people dying. In a few cases, he sees people who are seemingly healthy, suddenly being struck by the disease and dying within a few minutes. Many towns and villages have blockaded themselves against outsiders, though as these are all too often poor peasants, Angelo is often able to outwit them.

Angelo himself remains relatively upbeat. Though he does have occasional shivers, he seems to remain relatively healthy. His problem is getting food and even drink, with the drought having dried up many streams and food and drink likely to be contaminated. Angelo is ever the gentleman (we later learn that he is the son of a duchess) and helps some people in distress, though not always successfully.

Eventually he arrives at Manosque (Giono’s home town) and we gradually learn that this is his intended destination and that he is looking for someone called Giuseppe. We later learn that Giuseppe was his orderly when they were in the army. However, Manosque is in as bad a situation as elsewhere. Indeed, there are rumours that someone is poisoning the water with cholera and that people have seen a comet that foretells great disaster. Any stranger is treated not only with suspicion but is often brutally murdered. (We/Angelo witness such an event.) He himself is caught and only manages to escape thanks to a friendly police officer. Angelo has to hide out and he does, hiding, as the title tells us on the roofs or, some of the time, in attics. On one roof, when he comes down into the house, he meets a lady who does not seem scared of him and even offers him a cup of tea and some food.

He does eventually come down and assists a nun, who washes the dead bodies before they are buried. He also manages to track Giuseppe down. Giuseppe has been in touch with their friends back in Italy and, indeed,with Angelo’s mother, the duchess, who has sent some money for her son. (Angelo does not know his father and, indeed, does not know who he is.) With the cholera still raging and people dying by the score, Giuseppe and Angelo decide to leave and go their separate ways.

En route, Angelo meets some people who have found that movement is now becoming very difficult, as the army has been called in and is blocking all travel. People are required to stay where they are and anyone found travelling is immediately put into quarantine. One of these people is the woman who gave him a cup of tea earlier and the pair set off together. It is not till several days later that they introduce themselves. We learn that she is Pauline, (happily) married to a man forty years older than she is. She is endeavouring to get to her sister-in-law’s in a place called Gap. Inevitably the pair have a series of adventures, involving avoiding the military, getting lost as they try to go through areas where the military is not present and getting captured and escaping. Cholera is ever-present and a problem. And they, of course, are a young man and a young woman together and often alone.

What makes this book is first of all the cholera. Giono spares us no details of the nefarious effects of the disease, both medical as well as political and social. While this could be and, indeed frequently is, gruesome, it is balanced by the upbeat nature firstly of Angelo and, then, later, of Pauline as well. Both take the disease in their stride and while it is clearly an annoyance and they both clearly sympathise with and aid those suffering from it, they (more or less) surmount it, though both clearly suffer some effects from it. However, both are determined not be to be deterred or detained by it more than necessary. In particular, they are not going to let anyone stand in their way and both, Pauline as much as Angelo, are prepared to fight and overcome obstacles, whether human, medical or the difficult landscape they have to traverse to get their desired destination.

Though Giono clearly exaggerated the consequences of the pandemic, it did strike fear into the people of the area and the authorities did have to step in. However, he tells a first-class story, full of adventures, strange events and the reactions, often but not surprisingly irrational, of the ordinary people. Above all, we can only admire Angelo and Pauline and their determination not to be beaten by the disease and to even allow their relationship to flourish.
Translated by Jonathan Griffin

First published in French 1951 by Gallimard
First English translation by Museum Press in 1953