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Jóusè d’Arbaud: La bèstio dóu Vacarés (The Beast and Other Tales)

Note that that, in English, the writer is normally called Joseph d’Arbaud but the English-language book has been published under his Occitan name, Jóusè d’Arbaud. The main story in the book is La bèstio dóu Vacarés (The Beast of Vacarés) but there are three other tales by d’Arbaud in this book, which I shall mention in the review.

The Beast of Vacarés has been translated into English twice before. The first time was in 1947 by Alphonse V. Roche, a friend of d’Arbaud. It was never published. It did appear in Angels and Beasts: New Short Stories which is out of print but not too difficult to obtain. I hope that this edition will put it on the literary map, as it deserves to be. I have no doubt that had it been written in a more accessible language, it would be better known. This is all too often the problem of writers who write in lesser-used languages.

D’Arbaud was one of the two literary Occitan greats from the late nineteen/early twentieth century. The other was the great Frédéric Mistral, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904 and whose long poem Mirèio is available in English.

I use Occitan, though English speakers might be more familiar with the term Provençal. Provençal is, in fact, a regional dialect of Occitan, the one, of course, used in Provence. The French, in the past and probably to some degree now, tended to call Provençal a patois or dialect of French. Historically speaking, however, French is a dialect of Occitan.

This work starts with a framing narrative. The main characters in d’Arbaud’s work tend to be gardians. the Occitan terms is used in this book but the translator uses the term bull herder. Cowboy might be another term. Manadier is also used. The unnamed narrator is an educated man and he is with a gardian, known as Tall Tony. Tall Tony is illiterate and does not understand the purpose of books though accepts that they are important to the educated, He has a copy of an old book, handed down in his family and, when he dies, he leaves it to the narrator.

The book is a mixture of French, Provençal and poor Church Latin and appears to have been by the educated son of a gardian. He is called Jaume Roubaud and is writing the book in 1417. He had trained to be a priest but had abandoned it. We do not know why. He is out riding when his horse seems to be frightened. He sees strange tracks and hears something running in the bushes. He loses the tracks but comes back the next day and, this time, he manages to track down the creature and, finally catches up with it, hiding in the reeds. As he approaches, it turns and, to his surprise, he sees that it has a human face. However, the creature also has cloven hoofs and horns protruding from his head.

Jaume naturally assumes that it is the devil and he makes the sign of the cross and then repeats the words his uncle, a canon, used for exorcism. It has no effect. However, the creature can speak and insists that he is not the devil. Are my peace and poor happiness over simply because, tonight, a human looks upon me face to face? He flees and Jaume returns home.

Not surprisingly, Jaume is very concerned and wonders what to do. He goes out looking for the Beast again, using a new horse he has captured and more or less tamed. He does meet the Beast again and learns who he is (or, at least, who he claims to be) and even gives him food. However, he remains somewhat obsessed with him, still unsure who he really is and what he wants.

But then everything changes. All the wondrous events I recounted above, since my first meeting with the Beast, could pass as common and customary, compared with those that have come to me since. The Beast proves to be different, more powerful and, perhaps, more dangerous than Jaume had suspected. As Jaume tells us at the end, he is essentially scarred for life by his experience. A fear, a friendship, a mystery and remorse, he says.

What makes this such a great story is firstly the nature of Jaume and his reaction to the Beast. As was customary for the period, Jaume is very religious but, presumably, also prone to superstition and legends about strange creatures. Even when the Beast explains who he is and why, Jaume cannot believe him but, nevertheless, remains haunted by him. He wants to help him – a fellow quasi-human in distress – while being very much afraid of him. This ambiguity is key to the tension in the novel.

The second key point is, from our perspective, who the Beast is. His explanation is not easily accepted by Jaume. It certainly is unlikely to be accepted by a modern-day reader. However, as we see the Beast entirely through Jaume’s eyes and the fear of the Beast his animals show, we cannot help but be dragged into the story. Of course, fantasy novels about strange beings work, even if we know, intellectually, that they do not and cannot exist in our world. Think Harry Potter – and this is a far superior work. In other words, we buy in to d’Arbaud’s highly skilled story-telling and Jaume’s fear and wonder at the Beast. In short, this is a wonderful story, so well told.

This edition contains three other stories by d’Arbaud. The first is entitled Caraco. The word is used by the locals to describe dark-skinned people who were looked down upon, perhaps not unlike the situation with Roma/gypsies/Travellers in recent times. Our hero is Gounflo-Anguielo. Like Jaume, he is a solitary man, preferring his own company to that of others. He comes across a sixteen-year old Caraco girl. She had been living with her aunt but had been sent by her aunt to live with rich relatives but seems to have got lost. Gounflo-Anguielo helps her and lets her sleep on his cabin. Four days later she is still there.

Word gets around and when he goes to the local village, he is mocked. However, it seems to work well. She looks after him, cooking, cleaning and tidying up and he feeds her. It seems she might stay. One day, he returns from herding to find she has gone. Where has she gone? Will she back?

Pèire Guilhem’s Remorse is about Pèire Guilhem who breeds bulls for bullfights. Doesn’t it hurt you to see such a creature die?, he is asked. Hurt? Of course it hurt. But he has to make a living. One common theme in these four tales is the gardians’ love and concern for their animals. Yes, they have to be killed. That is how they make their living but, till then, they should be treated well.

Pèire Guilhem watches the bullfights, which he does not particularly enjoy, as he has to release his bulls when one is killed. He is therefore furious when he sees Duro, a picador, mistreating a horse. This is a horse Pèire Guilhem knows from old. The fate of old horses is either to be slaughtered or used in bullfights, where they are likely to be gored by the bull. He feels that Pavoun, this horse, does not deserve this treatment and proceeds to attack Duro. The owner is naturally not amused but agrees to spare the horse if Pèire Guilhem can buy it from the owner of the horses. Pèire Guilhem has no money but the owner agrees to make him a long-term loan.

However, Pèire Guilhem has a girlfriend, Nai, and she is furious. Pèire Guilhem should have spent the money on her. She gives him an ultimatum – Pavoun or her.

The final story is called The Longline and also features a solitary gardian. He is called Pèire Gargan. Near Pèire Gargan’s cabin there is large water-filled hole. In it there are eels and mullet. Pèire Gargan can catch the eels, which he likes to eat, but not the mullet, despite leaving a long line in the hole to catch them. One day he sees his line has been moved and there are footprints. No-one ever comes that way, except for the occasional gardian. He watches out and the next day finds not only has his line been stolen but the culprit seems to have managed to catch a mullet. Eventually, he does catch the man, a tramp. They get into a fight and, inadvertently, Pèire Gargan kills him.

The obvious solution is to drop him into the water, which he does. However, the decomposing body eventually floats to the surface, so he has to weigh it down. He had promised a friend that he would catch eels for him. To his horror, the friend turns up with an important companion. Pèire Gargan develops a fever and strong feelings of guilt. What if the body of the tramp were to reappear?

In all of these tales, we have the commonalty of the solitary nature of the profession of gardian and their devotion to their animals. They are happy to survive on meagre rations and, on the whole, happy with their own company. Two of them as we saw, did enjoy a bit of female company but it does not seem to be of great importance.

The earlier version of these stories mentioned above was almost certainly translated from the French. (The original text was published in a bilingual French-Provençal edition). Translator Joyce Zonana points out in her introduction that she used both languages in her translation and that there were some differences, so this is certainly the most complete and accurate translation of The Beast of Vacarés. We should be grateful to Northwestern University Press and Joyce Zonana for finally giving us a proper translation of this important text nearly a hundred years after it was first published.

Publishing history

First published in 1924 by Grasset
First published in English in 2020 by Northwestern University Press
Translated by Joyce Zonana