17 November 2015

Yann Queffélec: Les Noces barbares | The Wedding (1985)

Yann Queffélec's Les Noces Barbares is in three parts: Part I describes the circumstances of the birth of the main character Ludovic (shotened to Ludo), and his first thirteen years; Part II details his life at the Centre Saint-Paul; and the brief Part III concerns the events after his flight from the home.

There are many instances of kindness towards Ludo in Les Noces Barbares: his mother Nicole's cousin Nanette showing great concern and love for him; his step-father Micho caring for him in spite of very trying situations; the understanding and good nature of Fine, the home cook; Monique and Bernard's kindness towards Ludo when he goes to Le Forge village, and so on. But overwhelmingly, Ludo's life is filled with animosity, even hatred towards him, and most of it comes from his mother.

Inevitably, there are good reasons that to a certain extent mitigate Nicole's behaviour. Nicole, only thirteen but 'nearly fourteen' and looking eighteen, falls for Will, an American soldier based at a nearby camp in the Bordeaux area. It's the end of the war and Will's returning home, although Nicole is expecting to marry Will in the not-too-distant future and join him in the States. Her parents are bakers and they can't exactly ignore their daughter's evidentally bright-looking future.

But when the sexually innocent Nicole is expecting a happy final evening with her intended her life falls apart: Will is not only very drunk but brutally rapes her, and even allows two of his friends to do the same. The next day he gives her money and calls her a prostitute.

And as this is rural France in the 1940s, prostitute is more or less how Nicole comes across to her parents: the paradox of victimhood is that the victim becomes victimised. Nicole understandably sees herself as soiled, and of course the product of this horrific relationship – the bastard whose father is unknown – is the incarnation of this night of hell, and Ludo will continue to be a thorn in her flesh all her life. Her parents feel much the same about Ludo, who is forced to spend his first seven years shut up in the family attic.

Then the older Micho – an easy-going mechanic who has made a great deal of money – offers to take Nicole as his wife and is very willing for Ludo to join them, along with Tatav, Micho's son from a former marriage that ended in the unfortunate death of the wife. He isn't bothered that Ludo is a little odd, slow, taciturn and shows a behaviour pattern that would perhaps be diagnosed as autistic today – unfortunately, in less enlightened times Ludo is considered by many to be a bit mad. Nicole of course will never accept him and has never shown any affection for him. The marriage doesn't progress but regress, and Nicole is only relieved when the reminder of her hellish night is despatched to Saint-Paul, where she will never visit him.

At Saint-Paul the régime is harsh and the inmates are strictly segregated by sex, not even allowed to speak to the opposite sex. The place is run by the nurse Hélène Rakoff, who has had a tragic love affair and is consumed by jealousy for anyone else who is enoying a relationship, or for that matter enjoying themselves at all: hence the strict segregation, the twisted bitterness, the verbal violence, threats of sending rebellious 'sheep' to a madhouse, giving the inmates sedatives at night, etc. Ludo, though, lives for his mother coming to see him at the home, to visit him on Sundays like many of the others children's parents.

The crunch comes when Ludo – now sixteen – has begun a sexual relationship with the hare-lipped Lise. The odious Odilon discovers this, tells Rakoff about it, and instead of meeting Lise at their secret love den, Ludo meets a very angry Rakoff in bizarre military drag: and Ludo is the mad one?

And so Ludo must escape from this madhouse, which he does and for a short time is happy and free, living in a wrecked ship on the beach, buying food from the nearby village, making friends with the little girl Amandine. Another negative point about Saint-Paul is that it wasn't near the sea, and water is like a premonitory device in the novel, with for instance several references to submarines. It's in the wreck where Ludo will meet his mother for the final time, when he'll become so excited that he'll kill her, and walk out into the sea to his own death with her body in his arms. This won this the Goncourt for 1985, and I can understand why.

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