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Jean Giono: Le Grand Troupeau (To the Slaughterhouse)

Unlike some of his other novels, this one was not published in English till well after the French edition – thirty-eight years to be precise. It is also notable because the English title is very different from the French one. The French title means The Large Flock. The novel starts with just that. The village where much of this novel is set wakens to a large noise and the smell of wool and sweat. A huge flock of sheep are coming down from the hill and through the village. We learn why a bit later.

The novel is set in World War I and the men are going off to war. The shepherds in this novel take their sheep up to the hills for grazing but, while they up there, a couple of gendarmes approach and tell the younger men that they have been called up and they have to leave to fight, leaving behind only three older men. The three older men, led by the very driven Thomas, then have to take the sheep down again. Thomas pushes them (the sheep and the men) very hard and several of the sheep die and many are bloodied, all, of course, being symbolic of what is happening to the men fighting the war. Note that the French word troupeau can mean herd or flock – French has no separate word for the two – so the title could also refer to the men going off to war en masse. There is a chapter near the end of the book called Le grand troupeau, which clearly refers to the mass of men going into battle.

The English cuts straight to the chase. The men are going off to war and many of them will be killed. As the sheep do not go to the slaughterhouse, the English title presumably only refers to the men. Indeed, towards the end, La Poule, one of the soldiers, shouts To the slaughterhouse as the men go into battle.

The story focusses on one family. Joseph is off fighting the war, though we follow some of what he is going through. He has left behind Julia, his wife of one year, his younger sister, Madeleine, their father Jérôme, and Madeleine’s boyfriend, Olivier, who will soon be going off to war himself. While the young men are gone, the old men and women have to make do, which means keep the farm running but also deal with the large flock of sheep going through their village, not to mention the occasional soldiers passing through, as they are not far from the front and frequently hear the guns.

Not surprisingly, the women and old men find it hard, even though Joseph sends them a letter from the front with instructions. One telling scene is when there is a rabbit to be killed, and a neighbour, Clémence, is horrified at the thought of it but the rabbit is killed, skinned and prepared for cooking. Giono does not spare us the details – even the animals are to suffer in this war.

One other aspect of the war for those left behind is the men killed. We follow an event with Alberic, who works for the local mayor’s office and whose awful duty is to tell the relatives of the death of their loved ones. We see one particular instance – Arthur, a married man with children, has been killed and Alberic informs his wife and children.

We also follow the men and their time as soldiers. Joseph, for example, is left with a man, Jules, who has been wounded in the thigh. They have been left and told by the lieutenant that he will send back a cart to collect them. Not surprisingly, no-one comes. We follow the two men as Jules’ wound get worse, presumably infected, and he starts becoming delirious while Joseph is trying to comfort and help him, though there is little he can do except talk to the man.

Much of the second part of the book follows the fortunes of Olivier and Joseph during the fighting. Most of Olivier’s unit is killed and he sees several people wounded or killed in front of him. Joseph is himself wounded. In particular, Giono lays on the descriptions of the horrors of World War I, with the Germans tending to be remote and threatening but with little close contact with them. Bodies, mud, rats and even one scene of the crows feasting on the dead give us a picture of what Giono thinks of this war. Chaos is the name of the game as more than once the troops are lost and have no idea who is shooting. Back home, the government is requisitioning their animals though they do get labouring help from the prisoners-of-war.

Giono is clearly one of those writers, of which there are quite a few, whose books on World War I show the horrors of the war for the ordinary person, both soldiers and women and older people left at home. There are no glorious troop movements or battles and few heroics, only death, destruction and mayhem. It is a fine novel in that genre but certainly a harrowing one.

Publishing history

First published in French 1931 by Gallimard
First English translation 1969 by Peter Owen