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Max Rouquette: Verd Paradís (Green Paradise)
At the time he wrote these stories, Rouquette was unsure as to whether he would ever write a novel. Of course, he did do so but these stories, set in the (unnamed) town of Argelliers, are included here because these two books (both the English and French combine the first two volumes of his seven volume Verd Paradís series) are key to his work and have a unifying theme, in that they are set in Argelliers and, in many cases, can be seen as covering the same ground, which might be defined as the Occitan spirit and sensibility. Moreover, they are the only part of his work translated into English (though if you read French, most of his work has been translated into that language.) They generally deal with the local peasants, though other figures, particularly religious ones, appear. God and what we might call a gentle, rural Christianity are very much to the fore. Death is also key.
Several of the stories have death as a key subject. The opening story, for example, tells a simple tale of a man called Costasolana who goes out hunting partridges. We follow him as he waits for the birds to appear. Rouquette gives us a description of the landscape but also of the pins and needles that Costasolana gets, as he has to remain still. Then, suddenly, he has a heart attack and we watch him, helpless, as he slowly dies, his impressions of the surrounding countryside described. The next story takes a more mythical approach. Master Albareda is a talented oboe player, so much so that you have to book him a year in advance for parties. One evening he is playing in the local tavern. There is a heavy snow storm outside so the people are happy to drink and listen to him. One somewhat drunk man comments that Albareda’s playing is so good that it would make even the devil dance. At this point they hear a horse approaching and it stops outside the tavern. The door opens and a caraco (a gypsy) enters. After the caraco has got his drink, the drunk repeats his remarks and the caraco says he would like to see the devil dance. Albareda starts to play a tune but one the others had never heard before, haunting and mysterious. The caraco at first resists but then has to get up and dance, a strange, ungainly dance. When he has finished playing, Albareda says he to leave, as he has to make a journey. The others try to dissuade him, warning him of the danger of wolves. Eventually, at the end of the entertainment, all leave, including Albareda, who sets off on his own. Or, rather, he thinks he is on his own but he is being followed. We may think that the wolves and the devil will get him but Rouquette has a nice twist to the tale. Another aspect of death is told in the tale called St. John’s Wort. Two monks are out gathering herbs. One goes off on his own. He hears a strange bird singing and goes to look for it. He gets lost but eventually finds his way back to the monastery. When he knocks on the door, it is opened by a strange monk, whom he does not know and who does not seem to know him. On further investigation, no-one seems to know him at the monastery and he does not know anyone there. When he mentions the name of the abbot, he learns that he has been dead many years. He is shown the abbot’s grave and learns that it is now a hundred years since his death.
But it is not all death. There is the story of Jean de l’Ane (John of the donkey), so-called because he owned lots of animals and land but only one donkey. He is well-off, has a lovely wife, three sons and three daughters but he is not happy with his lot. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The gods hear of this and decide to test him. Over the next few years, the (seven hundred year old) King will visit him, causing him problems every time. At first he comes hunting and he and his men destroy all of Jean’s crops and vines. When he complains about it to the King, the King responds that he is fortunate to have had the King sitting in his front room. He can only agree. Jean’s”fortune” (which is how Rouquette, tongue in cheek, describes it) continues. First the King takes his wife to help cure his rheumatism. Then he takes his sons to fight the Polhacres, his enemies. All three are killed. He then builds a motorway through Jean’s fields and vineyards. With his meagre compensation, Jean builds a hotel, as tourism has risen. But the King then builds a grander hotel and Jean goes bankrupt. The King generously agrees to take his hotel (to be used as an annex for the main one) in return for not having to pay the taxes he owes. When Jean ask about his wife, who is still with the King, the King says he is now giving her to the Minister of Taxation, who also suffers from rheumatism but that he, the King, will take Jean’s three daughters for his needs. Finally, when the King visits and Jean tries to approach him, Jean is set upon by the King’s retainers but Jean’s good fortune continues. The King gives him a job as a doorman and to make up for his suffering, some clothes (used of course), a crown and the title of count. How lucky Jean is!
It is not all mocking and death. The natural beauty of Occitania features strongly as do religious themes. There is, for example, a story of Adam and Eve and even a very short one about God’s private garden in Heaven, where he goes to relax. All the stories, ranging from about one page to a bit over forty, are suffused with the joys, the characters, the legends, the poetry and beauties of his homeland and, indeed, of his home town. We are fortunate that they have been translated into English (albeit now out of print).
First published 1961 by Institut d’Etudes Occitanes
First published in English 1995 by University of Michigan Press
Translated by William Bracey MacGregor