2 March 2017

Maurice Genevoix: Raboliot (1925)

On one level Maurice Genevoix's Raboliot, which won the Goncourt in 1925, is a cops-and-robbers tale, on another it's a regional novel based entirely within a small area of Sologne in the heart of the Loire valley, and on yet another it's a kind of thriller depicting flawed characters.

The word 'Raboliot' is the title character Pierre Fouques's nickname and several characters here have two names. He's called Raboliot because he's like a wild rabbit: he's a traditional poacher, and the rich, strongly evocative language is awash with descriptions of the wooded Sologne area, the various animals, flowers and vegetation in general to be found there, the different traps used to catch animals, and there are a number of footnotes translating regional words used into conventional French. Genevoix modelled Raboliot on a well-known poacher in the area called Depardieu, or Carré, a man Genevoix never met in spite of a number of attempts to do so.

Raboliot's tireless adversary is not a game warden but the gendarme Bourrel, a man so consumed by hatred in his pursuit to imprison Raboliot that he appears all over the place, and he is so deranged that he shoots dead Raboliot's beloved dog Aïcha for no reason at all. The sensitive, vegetarian reader might wish that Raboliot shared the same consideration for other animals as he does for his dog, but then this is 1925 and the story would have no existence in a vegetarian world – nevertheless, the normality of the descriptions of breaking rabbits spines to kill them (and perhaps above all one of Raboliot's poacher friends biting through a hen's skull to kill it) left this particular vegetarian reader far less sympathetic to Raboliot's plight.

But then Raboliot is in some respects far less than a hero anyway, and his three-month flight from his family, away from the psychotic grips of Bourrel – but certainly not away from the grips Flora, the outcast whose legs are seemingly forever willing to be open to male visitors – has nothing of the heroic about it.

Will Raboliot ever be able to live in peace with the family he has neglected? Not while Bourrel is alive, but then not when he's dead either, as the final paragraphs detail Raboliot smashing the life out of Bourrel and holding out his hands for his police colleagues to handcuff him and lead him away.

My verdict: it's a great shame about all those animals murdered gratuitously by Raboliot, but this is still a hell of a read, and – dare I say it – probably one of the most interesting of the forty or so Goncourt winners I've read so far?

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