Chantal Fraïsse: La bèstia de totas las colors [The Beast of All Colours]
Chantal Fraïsse works as a conservationist at the Centre for Roman art at Moissac. This short novel, written in Occitan (her second mother tongue, as she describes it), is set there. In the introduction, she states that it is based on documents by and about Bertrand Cassanis, who was financial director of Moissac, though coming from a poor background. In her introduction, she states that, though she used these documents, she has been selective in their use, using what suited her and ignoring what did not, emphasising some aspects and playing down others and making assumptions that might not always have been valid. In short, she was writing a novel, not a history.
The story, simply told, recounts the life of Bertrand Cassanis in the eighteenth century. We first meet him as a young boy, living alone with his widowed mother. She runs a small food shop, just near the monastery at Moissac. Bertrand helps his mother, though regrets that the eggs the hens lay are for sale and not for them to eat. He observes the nuns and monks, and others associated with the monastery. However, his ambition is to get away, and take his mother somewhere where she does not have to work. The local priest, Evarista Andurandy, spots him and teaches him to read, do maths and to write. His brains and talent are recognised and he is soon sent off to a seminary. He is not always the devoted student, however, as he gets into trouble for fighting and has to write out passages from Seneca’s On Anger. However, he does well and is sent off to law school in Toulouse. There he makes friends with Marc Antòni, who will be murdered by his father for wanting to become a Catholic, but will qualify as a lawyer. He also meets Voltaire.
He first works for a bishop before being asked to return to Moissac to take over their accounting and he is put in charge of their accounting and administration. The rest of the book follows his life as he deals with the various problems and issues. He is very concerned about helping the poor, particularly during a period when cereal prices rise and there is not only poverty but starvation. He persuades the rich to help (which they do) and stamps down on exploitation. However, when farmers do not pay their rents, he can be harsh and even sends some to prison. He also faces personal problems, such as frequent stomach problems (though sometimes brought on by good wine and food) and the death of his mother. He also has to travel, which he does not particularly like , and is horrified at what people wear in Paris.
As I said above, this is a simple book. Nothing momentous happens. It is, however, a well-told account of life in rural eighteenth century France seen from the perspective of an ordinary person who does well in his career. Fraïsse clearly sees it as an extension of her work in the monastery and, as a result, she brings a special perspective to the account. The novel won the Paul-Froment prize (given for writing in Occitan) in 2011.
First published 2009 by Letras d’òc
No English translation