Jean Giono: Le Moulin de Pologne (The Malediction)
Jean Giono changed after World War II and this can be particularly seen in this work. No more do we find the worthy French peasant but, instead, there is mocking and satire and a fair amount of death. Like most critics, I preferred the earlier works but this is not to say that these later ones are not worth reading.
The respective French and English titles give a very different impression of the book. The French title, which simply means The Poland Mill, merely names the location of the novel. No-one is entirely sure why it is called that but possibly because a Polish pilgrim stopped off on the way and stayed. The English title, however, gives the game away. There does seem to be a curse.
Our narrator (we later learn that he is the local lawyer) starts in his present day, which seems to be the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, in a small town which is assumed to be based on Manosque, Giono’s home town. A new owner, Mr. Joseph, has taken over Le Moulin (which is not just a mill, but an estate). He is lodging with the local shoemaker and his wife, which is, in itself, something of a surprise as it does not seem to be the best place to lodge. He seems to keep himself to himself. The people of the small town, according to the narrator, are not entirely happy, as they prefer people to fit in with their way of life. He does not seem too interested in the women of the town. Inevitably, rumours start up about him. Two of the not quite as young they were young women – Eléonore and Sophie, still unmarried – show an interest and, indeed, on the Sunday promenade, which all the fine people make, they seem to have a certain, limited success.
But then we jump back in time and learn about the earlier inhabitants of Le Moulin. Mr. Coste lived there many years ago with his two marriageable daughters. He speaks to Mlle Hortense, the local matchmaker, about marrying them off. He is adamant that he wants husbands for them who come from solid stock, with no evidence whatsoever of any illness, genetic problems or premature deaths in the family. Initially, he does not explain why but Mlle Hortense does not give up easily and she learns that his wife and two sons had all three died separately but suddenly and unexpectedly. He feels that there is a curse on the family, so it is very important that his future sons-in-law do not have anything in their family that could lead to sudden illnesses or deaths. He wants, he says, a family that God has forgotten.
Mlle Hortense produces two brothers from the de M… family, who have a clean history for eight hundred years back, so Anaïs et Clara Coste marry Pierre et Paul de M…. All goes well at first. The two women get pregnant around the same time and each has a son three weeks apart. Later, Anaïs has a daughter and Clara another son. But then things start to go wrong. Deaths occur in a steady succession as do mental health and other problems. By the time we reach the era of the narrator, all that is left is Julie. Her brother died prematurely, as did her parents. She seems to be unstable.
The narrator knew her when she was a child. She did not have a happy childhood. She was very much teased and mocked. Other girls called her la morte, because of her family history and, for example, burst paper bags behind her back to frighten her. It worked. Eventually, her mother took her out of school and home-schooled her. She took up singing but when she sang in church people felt that she was screeching rather than singing. In short, she did not fit in at all. Once her parents and brother died, it was felt that she would be unable to look after herself.
Every year the town had a ball in the middle of January. The year in question, it was wondered if Mr Joseph would come. He did not but Julie did. She behaved very strangely, dancing ostentatiously on her own. When she left, the narrator followed her and, to his surprise, she went to Mr. Joseph’s house. To his greater surprise, he learned the next day that the couple were married, though she was some twenty years younger than him.
The couple had a son. Mr. Joseph became very successful and seemed to control much of the town and, in particular its inhabitants. However, Julie and her son were from the Coste family and the Coste family was cursed.
It is a strange and, at times, unsettling story with premature deaths galore, lunacy and general misery. The inhabitants of the town not related to the Coste family do not generally come off well, subject to mild (and, occasionally, not so mild) mockery from the narrator, himself a single man. In short, this is no longer the joyous celebration of the rural culture of France that we saw in Giono’s early novels. It is still a good read and, as always, a well-told story but I do prefer his earlier novels.
First published in French 1952 by Gallimard
First English translation 1955 by Museum Press
Translated by Peter de Mendelssohn