by Serge Joncour.
Chien-Loup [literally: Wolf-Dog]
was first published in 2018.
Translated from the French by
Jane Aitken & Polly Mackintosh
US release date 4/2/2020
Nature writing is often thought as typically American. Today, I’d like to present an excellent example of this genre, but by a French author. I had never read anything by Serge Joncour, but his Wild Dog totally blew me away.
We have two parallel plots, told in short alternating chapters:
- One taking place in 1914-1915, so at the beginning of WWI, in a very small village in Quercy, a very isolated and poor region of France (South West, a bit above Toulouse). The men are called to the Front, and the women have to take over and run the farms and everything.
A German circus man refuses to join the war and comes to ask a place to hide his five lions and three tigers. The mountain above the village is considered cursed by the villagers, so the mayor sends him there. The villagers are very scared by the roars of the lions.
- The other story is set in 2017: Franck and Lise found a place for their vacation. It’s a very small house in the middle of nowhere. Lise is thrilled, as she wants to live off the grid for a while, away from all toxic electronic waves which she thinks may impact her recovery from cancer. She paints and loves meditating in silence, solitude, and nature.
It’s a different story for Franck, a movie director, who can’t live two minutes away from the internet.
He gets close to madness when he discovers there’s absolutely no way he can even use his phone in this God forsaken place.
This is also a tough time in his career, as he has to deal with two younger partners who dream of getting into video games and do deal with Amazon and Netflix, an enterprise Franck considers very dangerous.
Obviously the house they rented for their vacation is the lion tamer’s house, and both narratives connect at several levels. I’m not going to tell you more about the plots, but instead, I’d like to highlight the many strengths of this very unique book.
First of all, the writing is absolutely superb.
Definitely the gorgeous description of nature, but also how nature reflects on and impacts the human psychology, and how humans react to it. For instance, the passages showing how the area is paradise for Lise and total hell for Franck are magnificent.
The sun sank beyond the hill opposite, setting the woods ablaze with a color that spread across the entire sky, a sky of velvety red.
The structure itself is brilliantly done. It’s actually more than a simple alternation between chapters, and sometimes, some keywords pop up connecting both narratives.
I also liked sometimes the distanciation in the narrative between what a character assumes and says, and what you think actually happened.
Note that this is translated from the French, but the two translators did an incredible job, and I never felt it was a translation.
The book is so rich it’s actually impossible to put it under one specific genre. It is clearly a historical novel, with what people experienced in their village when most men were at the Front.
The silence of departed men was haunting, a constant reminder of their absence.
But it’s also a mystery, for both lines of narration, with a lot of suspense in some scenes. The sense of fear, dread, and doom at the beginning was so well conveyed!
I think the cover is a brilliant illustration of these themes.
The terrible sound persisted this time, until everyone in the village felt swirls of fear coil round their hearts and linger on their lips, like the stale end of a cigarette.
Man needs to know he has enemies, something to fear, if only so that people can unite against them.
The lions roaring was like an echo of the bad news.
And it’s also a kind of animal tale, about the relationship between people and animals. There were lots of details about all the animals which died during WWI, something we actually rarely think about.
It also focuses on the relationship between the tamer and his lions and tigers, and the relationship between the village, their own animals and these wild animals.
And in the second narrative, a mysterious wild dog comes and basically adopts Franck.
It’s an animal tale as little by little, you discover the savage animal characteristics emerge in our society, definitely with the men at war, but also in the competitive world of film industry, and in several other characters involved. As if wild characteristics were slowly taking over people themselves. Note though, this is not at all a fantasy, more a philosophical an social reflection, in which we can all too well recognize our world.
This same savagery is also present in the flora itself. We are told for instance about the national disaster with the phylloxera, that destroyed most of vineyards at the end of the 19th century in France, for example in this area where they used to harvest the best wines, reserved for the king’s table.
At the social level, I also really enjoyed the description of the villagers, in particular the mayor, the schoolmaster, the doctor and his wife, the simple shepherd, and the blacksmith. Some are definitely foxy, to use the animal vocabulary.
The mentality of the superstitious people living there and working so hard is extremely well portrayed. As well as their hate of local police!
VERDICT: Superb writing in this historical mystery and philosophical/psychological animal tale. Are you aware of the animal characteristics of your human nature and how your environment can change your life?
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
Any other great novel about the impact of nature and animals
on human behavior?
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this book free of charge for review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.