Saturday, 26 September 2020

The Beast, and Other Tales by Jóusè d'Arbaud

The Beast, and Other Tales by Jóusè d'Arbaud
First published in Provencal in France in 1926. English language translation by Joyce Zonana published by Northwestern University Press on the 15th September 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A classic of modern Provençal literature, Jóusè d’Arbaud’s 1926 masterpiece “The Beast of Vacarés” (also known as “The Beast of Vaccarès”) is a haunting parable. Set during the fifteenth century, the tale is narrated by a solitary bull herder—known as a gardian—who stumbles upon a starving creature that is half man, half goat. Terrified, the gardian is nonetheless drawn to the eloquent Beast, a dying demigod who laments the loss of his glorious past even as he wields power over the animals around him. Torn between pity and fear, unable to understand his experiences and afraid he will be condemned for heresy, the gardian records his encounters in a journal, hoping that one day readers will make sense of what he cannot.

Set in the vast, lonely landscape of the Camargue delta, where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean, The Beast seamlessly melds fantasy with naturalistic detail about the region’s flora and fauna. Three additional stories—“The Caraco,” “Pèire Guilhem’s Remorse,” and “The Longline”—explore the lives of twentieth-century gardians in the region. Each man succumbs to fears and social pressure, tragically losing what he most loves.

Jouse d'Arbaud was a French author, but particularly a Provençal author who was prominent in an artistic movement to preserve traditional Provence culture and language. His determination to experience the true life of this historic region led him to uproot himself from his urban home and to start anew as a Camargue bullherder, living spartanly very much as the gardian hero of The Beast would have done some five centuries earlier. This now-classic novella was initially published in a bilingual Provençal/French edition and I was interested in present-day translator, Zonana's, note that the Provençal was by far the more vivid and charismatic version.

The Beast reads much like a fairytale in structure with a demonic yet poignant mystery creature at its heart. I would describe it perhaps as somewhere towards John Steinbeck's The Pearl, but with an intense sense of place reminiscent of The Farm by Hector Abad. d'Arbaud's deep love of the Camargue landscape and it's nature is wonderfully evident across every page and, having spent a little time in this region myself, I can can completely empathise. I felt as if The Beast itself could be a metaphor for the then-dwindling Camargue culture and way of life. To me this is even more significant now, almost a century later, as rising sea levels mean the whole area will soon be lost to floods leaving d'Arbaud's writing as a lone reminder.

The Beast was very much the star of this story quartet for me. The other three works are shorter and felt less developed although, as they share commonalities of place and characters, it made sense for them to be included. Pere Guilham's Remorse is particularly disturbing as it includes some pretty graphic scenes of animal torture (bullfighting is one tradition I will happily see flooded into oblivion!), but The Caraco was interesting with its focus on social exclusion amongst already solitary peoples. Although I admit that, prior to seeing this collection on NetGalley, I hadn't heard of d'Arbaud myself, I am surprised that he isn't more renowned in the French-speaking world. Perhaps his determination to be Provençal over French was the reason? Either way, these stories are a valuable record from a historical perspective and also an entertaining read.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Jouse d'Arbaud / Short stories / Books from France