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Fiction Review Local themes with wider significance in novel of hard times in the French Landes

The November Boy
by Bernat Manciet
(Francis Boutle, £8.99)
 

BERNAT MANCIET (1923-2005) is one of the most internationally orientated Occitan writers of the modern era and at the same time the most rooted in one specific location, the village of Sabres in the Gascon Landes.

Educated in Sabres and Talence, near Bordeaux, he acquired an advanced knowledge of the Latin and Greek classics, partly through uncles who were Catholic priests.

As a young man he travelled widely in the French diplomatic service, to Brazil and Uruguay and in particular to Germany, all of which influenced his extensive view of world literature. He sought to reject “aesthetic regionalism” and to open up Occitan to a universal literature with aspirations beyond political regionalism or nationalism.

The November Boy (Lo Gojat de Noveme), written in the mid-1950s and published to enthusiastic acclaim in 1964, manifests the author’s commitment to a modern world literature in Occitan. Sombre and challenging, it's the most widely read of Manciet’s work, both in the original Gascon dialect of Occitan and in French translation.

Its background is the social and emotional consequences of the decline of the traditional timber and pine-resin economy of the area during the 1920s and 1930s.

Narrator Bernat Haza, a young man with advanced tuberculosis, is the last in line of one branch of an extended family of Catholic landowners whose livelihood depends on cattle rearing, crop farming and timber and resin extraction from the extensive pine plantations.

It recounts the misery of the lives of a bourgeois Landais family fallen on hard times and the wait for the reappearance of the November Boy, the mysterious and taciturn French-speaking young man brought to their house in an earlier unspecified year by a doctor member of the family.

The encounter of the narrator with this enigmatic figure and his relationships with a Polish emigre, a distant cousin and “the machiner” — a young man who works at a local sawmill —  are all part of Haza’s search for meaning in what is a  compelling blend of laconic self-enquiry, tender observation, suffering and faith under duress.

The novel is the second in the Francis Boutle series of translations of short fiction from European regional and lesser-used languages and James Thomas’s translation conveys beautifully the atmospheric colours and tones of the sombre heathland of south-western France. It's excellent, and award-winning to boot.

 

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