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Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz: Derborence (When the Mountain Fell)

On 23 September 1714 a huge part of the rock detached itself from the Diablerets mountain in Switzerland, near the village of Derborence. Twenty people were killed, with only one body recovered, as well as numerous cattle and other animals, domestic and wild. A subsequent rockfall, thirty years later, created Lake Derborence. This novel is based on the 1714 event.

The book starts with Séraphin and Antoine. As is the custom, as from around 15 June, they have taken their cattle up to the high pasture lands. Séraphin is the old hand, while Antoine is new at this. Séraphin is hoping to train Antoine. Antoine, however, is not keen on spending too much time there, as he has only been married two months and, not surprisingly, wants to be with his wife, Thérèse. He had a hard time persuading her mother to agree to the marriage, as he came from a poor background but she finally consented. Antoine is not only missing Thérèse, he finds the silence of the mountains threatening. As in La Grande Peur dans la montagne (Terror on the Mountain), the awesome nature of the landscape and the smallness of humans compared to it, is very frightening. It is not helped by the strange noises the men hear, though Séraphin partially reassures Antoine by saying that these noises are normal as the glacier moves but then adds that the mountain is called Les Diablerets (= abode of the devil) for a reason – the devil and his children live there and the noise is them playing skittles.

That night the noises increases and suddenly, the chalet falls in on them. Initially, we have no idea what has happened to them. Ramuz gives us a superb description of the aftermath of the rock fall and then describes how the survivors reacted. At night they had heard the noise (the fall seems to have taken place around 2.30 a.m.) but could see nothing and went back to bed. In particular, we learn of Thérèse’s reaction, not least because she has just told her mother that she is pregnant. The next morning, as happened in real life, there is a thick fog, caused by the dust that has risen into the air as a result of the fall, so the locals can still see little. However, in one village they can see that the road is blocked and the mountain rivers seem to have disappeared.

The residents start to investigate and find out how bad the disaster is. A man – Barthélemy – is found injured and is carried back on a stretcher but dies on the way, his chest crushed. The location is near the borders of three countries – Austria, Italy and Switzerland – and people from the three countries meet but struggle to communicate in their different languages. However, gradually, life resumes.

However, in the second part, two months after the disaster, we are looking at the landscape, when a man seems to crawl out of the ground. He staggers out and then looks around, wondering where he is. We are soon told, though we had already guessed, that it is Antoine Pont. He does not recognise the landscape which has naturally changed since the disaster but soon works out what has happened. He stumbles downhill. The first person he sees is a young girl herding goats. She takes one look at him and flees. When he arrives at a house, he goes in and they too flee. Eventually, unsure of where he is, he manages to find his own house but even Thérèse is unsure whether he is real or just a ghost. Other inhabitants have fewer doubts. They are sure that he is a ghost or some sort of spirit.

Ramuz tells a superb story, set against the background of a very real natural disaster and against the background of mountains which, for Ramuz and the local inhabitants, are the domain of the devil. This means that they have a mind of their own, that it is often dangerous for ordinary humans to penetrate them safely and that strange spirits live there which are both beyond the comprehension of ordinary humans as well as being dangerous. Something of a ghost story indeed but also an excellent story whether you believe in ghosts or not.

Publishing history

First published in French 1934 by Éditions d’Aujourd’hui, Lausanne
First English translation by Pantheon Books in 1947