Jean Giono: Le Chant du monde (The Song of the World)
What makes Giono one of the foremost French writers is that his characters are, for the most part, very much in tune with the land they live on, a land that is generally far removed from any urban centres and therefore far removed from the urban life most of us are used to. The two main characters in this novel are a case in point. Antonio is a man of the river. He lives by the river, swims in it every morning, knows its movements and its smells and has an understanding with it. There is even one marvellous scene where Antonio is swimming with a conger eel and the two are swimming together like old friends.
Sailor, his friend, is a man of the forest (though, of course, as his name tells us, a former sailor). Just as Antonio knows the river, he knows the forest. He lives in an encampment in the forest with his wife Junie, his daughter-in-law, Charlotte, and his son, Danis. (Danis is only named once in the book and is generally referred to as le besson, a regional name for twin, or as the redhead). Danis’ twin brother had died the previous spring, leaving a widow, Charlotte, and a child. Sailor can smell the pine trees, knows when and where the wolf and the foxes are and recognises the different birds.
At the start of the book, Danis has disappeared, after having set out to build a raft. Sailor fears he may have drowned in the river. Antonio assures him he has seen no evidence of it and is sure he would have seen, if not the body, then the raft Danis would have used. However, he agrees to help Sailor look for the young man. Each one takes one side of the river, carefully checking for any signs. At times, they cannot see or hear one another.
When they meet up, they hear a noise and find a young woman, Clara, giving birth to a baby. They take her to a nearby farm, where they find that she is blind. It is there that they meet the cow herders who seem to work for Maudru, who clearly has influence in the region. There is something of a stand-off between Sailor and Antonio on the one hand and the Maudru’s four cow herders on the other, not least because they clearly know and have seen Danis, but the men go their separate ways peacefully.
Their journey continues and once again they find themselves meeting Maudru’s men. This time they find Maudru’s nephew, who has been shot in the stomach. Sailor does not realise what has happened but Antonio is smart enough to work out that the nephew has been shot by Danis. They have been sent to a nearby village by Junie to contact an almanac seller and it turns out that this man is Junie’s brother, albeit living under another name, whom Sailor knows well. It turns out that he is sheltering Gina, Maudru’s niece, and Danis, who have met and possibly fallen in love, though Gina is having serious doubts. All of them now face the prospect that Maudru and his men are looking for Danis and Gina and will be ruthless when they find them.
The pair wait out the winter but, inevitably, there is going to be a Western-style showdown when spring arrives and this is indeed what happens. Indeed, this novel could be considered a French Western, with the showdown, the cattle herders and the people in tune with the land. We see numerous examples of this: Maudru who knows all his bulls by names and talks to them, with the bulls responding to his calls, the men adapting to the seasons without any concern, the final journey down the river with both Antonio and Danis knowing the river so well and even Clara, though she is blind, recognising the seasons.
Virtually every chapter of this book starts with a detailed description of the landscape where the chapter is set, from the mountain like a recumbent human to the winter landscape or simply a loving portrait of the land, the forests, the fields and the hills, with humans almost incidental.
The novel is driven by the plot, with the hunt for Danis, his love for and abduction of Gina and the resultant showdown but it is the natural environment and Giono’s superb skill at portraying it that makes this novel a first-class novel even by Giono’s high standards.
First published in French 1934 by Gallimard
First English translation 1937 by Viking Press