27 July 2015

Vincent Borel: Pyromanes: un fable (2006)

This is a remarkable piece of work, and not only the first book by Vincent Borel that I've read but also the first time I've read a Sabine Wespieser publication. It won't be my last of either. It came as no surprise to discover that Borel is very interested in Jean Giono, although I was for several reasons also reminded of Niall Griffiths's Sheepshagger (2001) in particular, but also his first novel Grits (2000).

A group of hyperactive young kids from the Lyon area are in a holiday colony in Durbon in the Hautes-Alpes. History student Guillaume Farel is in charge of them, and he's very interested in, as it were, killing two birds with one stone by tracing the footsteps of his (real) namesake, Guillaume Farel (1489–1565) the religious reformer, who was born in Gap (as was Vincent Borel). With Farel the reformer in mind, Farel the monitor hopes to cool some of the kids down by a long walk to Champforan at the back of Mount Garnesier. But it's tough going and most go back, leaving Guillaume, Mehdi, Sergio and François to carry on.

And then there's Paule who's unknown to anyone in the area. She's one of the emerging names in destroy art and sent her first works – various images of her menstrual blood on Communion wafers, etc – to the webzine Weekly Pollution. She's now commissioned to send more bad taste images to an art gallery owner, and as a hater of nature thinks nothing of pissing on ants' nests or butchering badgers if she can get good photos.

But one person in the area does spot her, and is alarmed by her behaviour: Martial Blancart. He's a young boy no one at all knows of because he's been forgotten. He's had a rough time of things: his father throws his dead mother to the pigs, when the police arrive his father kills two of them, is arrested and kills himself, as does his advanced alcoholic grandfather, so Martial burns the family house down and takes to living in the woods. His grandfather has at least told him how to fend for himself, and he does remarkably well under the circumstances, even if his first love affair is with a tree.

Finally, there's a group of mainly middle-class drop-outs who live for loud rock music but above all hallucinogenic drugs, and they're making their way towards Garnesier for the magic mushrooms on the slopes. Paule will be there too, and Martial will be lurking unseen.

Also there is the main 'character' in the book: Nature, furious that humans are destroying the planet with an unbelievable ignorance and arrogance. Several people are struck dead by lightning, among them Sergio and François who are killed outright. Paule is struck too, and remains motionless and is carried away by Martial, unseen in the turmoil. Guillaume is struck deaf and dumb and Mehdi goes blind, and the two of them are taken to the hospital in Gap.

But this is only the beginning of the weirdness. Martial takes Paule back to his cave and looks after her as she slowly comes round and not only accepts her new situation but she begins to love nature, views Martial if she's always known him, and he teaches her to respect the natural world, such as only to take a certain number of eggs from a nest.

Nature, in fact, is teaching people a lesson.

In hospital Guillaume and Mehdi also undergo a transformation, to such an extent that they become inseparable: Guillaume becomes Mehdi's eyes, and Mehdi Guillaume's voice. And Guillaume hasn't exactly lost his sense of hearing, he simply can't hear people, although he can hear ants crawling and butterflies sucking nectar, and so on. Things come to a head when Guillaume and Mehdi go to court over the monitor's supposed negligence of his duty by taking the boys for a mountain walk and not consulting the weather first. In a scene that the narrator says is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, birds flock to the courtroom windows in droves, and suddenly Guillaume briefly finds his voice and warns of an impending apocalypse: it's as though he's a prophet.

The world is then struck with avian flu, diarrhoea reaches epidemic proportions, volcanoes erupt all over the place, power cuts are everywhere, communication breaks down, even the rich can't escape the chaos, it seems as though the world is coming to an end. Well, it's not, but although things will not be as they were again with humanity exploiting the planet at breakneck pace, things in future will have to be ruled by nature. Or else.

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