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Jean Boudou: La Quimèra [The Chimaera]

This novel, at least in part, is about the Camisards or, more particularly, their revolt of 1702. Though this was a Huguenot (i.e. French Protestant) revolt, it was more particularly an Occitan revolt. (Camisards were people who wore camisas, i.e. the smocks traditionally worn by Occitan peasants. The word is related to the French word chemise = shirt.) Indeed, Boudou has stated that he wrote the book as the learned people did not do their job and write about it. The novel is related by Pierre Vaissier, one of eleven brothers, born in the village of Canet-d’Olt in 1661. (If you look at the link, you will see a plaque in Occitan dedicated to the memory of Canon Aimat Vayssier, the Occitan for Aimé Vaissier. Aimé Vaissier is Pierre’s father in this book, though, as he is only a labourer, presumably Boudou only took the name.)

We first meet Pierre as a slave in Algeria, having been captured by pirates. He is not too badly treated but mocked for being a roumi, i.e. someone who is not a Muslim. All he has left, he says, is his language, i.e. Occitan. He recounts the story of the prince who is captured by brigands. He notes the way carefully. When he is taken to their cave, he notes that they make carpets. He gradually learns how to make carpets and is eventually allowed to make one. He has a lot of script on his carpets. The brigands are illiterate and think that it is either poetry of quotations from the Koran. In fact, it is detailed instructions of how to get to the cave. When the carpet is completed, it is taken to the market and sold for a high price. The man who buys it works for the king. The king reads the instructions and comes and rescues his son. Pierre plans on doing something similar, though not on a carpet but by writing his story in Occitan (which the Algerians will not be able to read) and perhaps giving it to a passing traveller, and he will be rescued in the same way.

Pierre was born and brought up as a Catholic. Indeed, he wants to train as a priest but this does not work out as priests are required to sing and he has a terrible singing voice. As a result, he trains as a teacher’s assistant. We follow his adventures from here. He cannot find a job as a teaching assistant in his village but meets someone who sends him off to another village. There he gets a job in a school attached to the local church. He also falls for Lilou, elder sister of one of his pupils. Eventually, they creep up to his attic bedroom one night but the priest hears them in their passion and comes to the door. She jumps from the window so his reputation is saved. Unfortunately, the room is high and she is killed in the jump. Pierre flees. After a series of further adventures he ends up at the Abbey of Bonnecombe, where he meets Antoine de Guiscard (whom you will see mentioned in this link (in French), as commendatory abbot, i.e. an abbot who is in charge but is not part of a religious order and is not involved directly in the religious activities of the abbey.) Pierre becomes a commensal, i.e. someone who eats, works and lives in the monastery but does not take religious orders. His name is changed to Simon.

He has various jobs while at the abbey. He starts off working for the blacksmith, Brother Eloi. Brother Eloi turns out, like several of the other commensals, to be descended from an aristocratic family. As a result, de Guiscard comes to him to learn what Brother Eloi learned from his grandfather about the Magnum Opus, a term relating to alchemy. Both de Guiscard and Simon are taken to a secret place to learn about it but Simon faints and, when he is revived later his duties are transferred. In the discussion between de Guiscard and Brother Eloi, Brother Eloi calls the Magnum Opus a chimaera, not the last time this word will be used for an impossible dream. Brother Simon’s time with the librarian also introduces him to mysteries but, finally, he becomes a mendicant and travels round the region.

Meanwhile, we are following political developments. The Edict of Nantes was signed by King Henry IV in 1598, giving more religious freedom but was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. There is considerable pressure on the Huguenots (i.e. the Protestants) to convert to Catholicism, many do, though often just to save themselves, not with any real conviction. Those that do not convert and even those that do but do not attend mass regularly are persecuted. Meanwhile, while Brother Simon has been a mendicant, de Guiscard has been away and returns with fire in his belly. He wants the region to become independent and that means a union between Huguenots and Catholics to oppose the French. This is how it was in the past – there is a lot of looking back to the past in this book – and de Guiscard feels it can be done now, not least because Louis XIV is facing intense opposition from League of Augsburg (i.e. the other European powers who fear France’s power) and cannot afford to use military resources to oppose the Occitanians. The word chimaera is used for this dream by Brother Jean.

We follow the development of de Guiscard’s plan and Brother Simon is very much involved in assisting, going through yet more adventures. We have also been learning a lot about the history of the region and, in particular, how they have been persecuted and overtaxed by their rulers, in particular the King of France and the local lords, though the English, in the form of the Black Prince, as well. We also learn about their cultural history, including the influence of the troubadours (without whom there would have been no Dante). Indeed, the characters frequently break out into song.

But the Camisards revolt is gaining steam and for the last part of the book, we follow Boudou’s view of it. Much of it is minor skirmishes, with attacks on villages, churches (and priests) and buildings, though there are pitched battles, but the amount of troops involved is relatively small. Boudou does not spare us some of the grim details, as there is cruelty and viciousness on both sides, though, of course, the French are shown to be particularly cruel, burning houses with women and children in them. Despite the intervention of the English, the revolt does not end well and we know what happens to Simon when he flees on an English ship.

Boudou has no doubts which side he is on but recognises the faults on his own side, saying that the irregular camisards should have had more organisation and discipline. Indeed, he quotes the Duke of Berwick as saying that if the camisards had behaved in a more Christian manner and had only come out in favour of freedom of conscience and reduced taxes, they may well have won. Infighting and religious fanaticism were at least part of their undoing. Boudou tells an excellent story through the eyes of Peter/Simon, who is witness to many events and has many adventures of his own, nearly being killed on several occasions. This book is considered a classic of Occitan literature but it has not been translated in English and is long since out of print in French.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Institut d’estudis occitans
No English translation
Published in French as La Chimère in 1989 by Éditions du Rouergue
Translated by Philippe Gardy
Published in Spanish as Quimera in 2015 by Vergara