Monday, September 24, 2007

Fred Vargas' France

"As they left the last slivers of Mediterranean landscape behind them and began the climb towards the Col de la Croix-Haute, about ten kilometres before the summit they drove into a bank of white, fluffy fog. Soliman and Watchee were entering an alien sector and they observed their new surroundings with hostility and fascination."
Last month I wrote about a fascinating connection between Fred Vargas and Fernand Braudel: The superb French crime novelist and the late, great French historian shared a translator, Siân Reynolds. In a gracious reply to my fan letter, Reynolds shed further light on possible connections. She wrote that Mrs. Braudel had told her Vargas had been to see Braudel when she was starting her own career as a historian.

But the ties between the two are more than circumstantial and biographical. Braudel and Vargas had temperamental affinities as well, and those affinities strongly inform Seeking Whom He May Devour. In this novel, second of Vargas's four about Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg that have been translated into English, Vargas shares Braudel's keen and amused interest in the physical and social diversity of their homeland. The selection quoted above is a virtual illustration of Braudel's observations in The Identity of France about the country's countless pays, its distinctive micro-regions with their own economies, traditions, and even climates.

Vargas has put a plumber/musician, a wise old shepherd, and a young, all-purpose handyman in a livestock truck converted into a camper and taken them on the road through southeastern France. Their goal: Find the man or beast who has been terrorizing the countryside and the country by slaughtering sheep and the occasional human. The journey is not terribly long, but it takes the searchers through a range of climates, geography and social attitudes. With reason, one of the characters calls their odd odyssey a road movie.

And then, at a surprisingly advanced stage in the eccentric voyage, Vargas brings Adamsberg onto the scene, a symbol, despite his utterly idiosyncratic methods, of bureaucratic, Paris-centric France, another one of Braudel's many Frances and of Vargas's as well.

But Seeking Whom He May Devour is a novel, and not a geography lesson. The leisurely, late introduction of Adamsberg lets Vargas do what she does so well: build a convincing fictional world populated by sympathetic characters before the investigation gets serious. Among other things, this means that when Vargas introduces the inevitable tensions and complications and personal notes, they seem an organic part of the novel, and not mere grafted-on human interest. We know these people. And the ground is fertile for the interpersonal dynamics that help make any journey more than a mere itinerary: The plumber/musician is Adamsberg's long-ago lover, the elusive Camille.

The mystery is fully worked out, complete with red herrings and false leads, the killings suitably gruesome, the confrontations with the killer and other bad characters suitably tense. But the pleasures of seeing the travellers developing a daily routine around their rolling home are at least as great. The delights, as in any good journey, are at least as much in the travel as in reaching the destination. Or maybe even more so.
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The other Adamsberg novels are Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, Have Mercy on Us All, and This Night's Foul Work. The last, a translation of Dans les bois éternels, which appeared in French last year, is to be published in 2008.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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4 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I love the way some writers break all the rules about introducing your main protagonist at the start, or slowing the plot with back stories.

September 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

It's one of Vargas' trademarks, and it's arguably more true to life than the more usual ways of doing things in crime stories.

September 24, 2007  
Blogger Barbara said...

She's a wildly eccentric novelist and I'm glad she's getting a US publisher finally.

That said, I like Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand better than Seeking - partly because I liked spending time with Adamsberg and partly (I suspect) because I read it second and was more prepared for her highly original way of approaching crime fiction.

Her relationship with Canada and Canadians is a little odd, but if you're breaking rules, I won't be too picky.

September 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comment. It's always nice to hear from another reader beguiled by Vargas.

I read Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand first, and I think I liked it a bit better than the other two I've read, in part for the reason you mentioned. Vargas likes to shift the degree of prominence she gives to characters. Some of the characters in The Three Evangelists, which I've just begun, have small roles in Have Mercy On Us All, and Adamsberg does not appear in the book. It's one of the things that makes her work interesting.

I'm from Montreal, so I was especially interested in the views of Quebec and Quebecers in Wash This Blood ... . And Johnstone in Seeking Whom He May Devour is, presumably, an Anglophone Canadian, which adds a new dimension to Vargas' views on this subject. Without having given the matter great and deep thought, I'd say she has fun with mutual suspicions of Canadians and French.

Of course, she also touches on suspicions between people from different parts of France in Seeking Whom He May Devour. It's all part of the gentle human comedy that I think Vargas loves so much and manages to pull off without getting overly sentimental.

September 24, 2007  

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