12 January 2016

Jean Vautrin: Un grand pas vers le Bon Dieu (1989)

In 1991 Patrick Griolet lodged a complaint of plagiarism against Jean Vautrin's Prix Goncourt 1989 novel Un Grand Pas vers le Bon Dieu on the grounds that it uses many of the words and expressions in Griolet's works on Cajun words and expressions. Griolet lost his case because although explanatory texts, definitions, examples, etc, are indeed protected the words and their orthography are not; Griolet also lost on appeal. For me, what this exercise shows more than anything is the extent to which Un grand pas vers le Bon Dieu is steeped in the Cajun lexicon.

So steeped in fact that, reading some comments by regular as opposed to professional readers, bafflement is the order of the day – or rather, the order of the daze: this novel is for at least half of its monster 535-page length a mixture of Cajun, straight French, and liberal smatterings of English.

The events in the novel take place between 1893 and 1920 – just twenty-seven years – but a great deal happens in that time, although that time is not represented sequentially: we are to some extent made to lose track of the past half way in. That doesn't concern me as much as the essential joining of two parts does, and in spite of the eventual resolution of the hiatus between the parts there is a number of pages here in the second half that just left me cold as they felt superfluous. All the same, I never at any point wanted to give up on the book because it contains superlative, often very funny, writing.

Before the momentous event of most the killings, which take place on one occasion and almost exactly half way through Un grand pas vers le Bon Dieu, we have Edius Raquin – the surname surely not being gratuitous as this reads throughout like a cartoon Zola – in Bayou Nez Piqué in remote Louisiana with his wife Bazelle and his very choosy daughter Azeline, who just refuses to marry any of the guys around as they're plain boring skirt-chasers.

Until, that is, Farouche Ferraille Crowther, the most wanted outlaw in the country and with a past as unlikely as his name, guns his way into the territory, Edius (in equally unlikely mode) takes to him and hides him in the marshes with a view to taming him for marriage to Azeline and working on the plantation after a change of appearance just to put bounty hunters and (for example) Farouche's notorious enemy Palestine Northwood off the scent.

Wonder of wonders, Azeline is (in theory secretly) turned on by the first erection she's ever seen as Farouche washes himself in the bayou water and she masturbates with a groan. So marriage is inevitable, although all the killings come on the wedding day and Farouche has to leave pretty sharpish. But not before he's sown the seeds of motherhood in Azeline, who moves to New Orleans and, well... another story begins with her son.

It's this second story that often had me yawning, as this reader can only take so many wild stories – and so many larger-than-life characters – in one go. So Azeline's son Jim Crowley (who will become a musician) lives in New Orleans for many years, growing up fast in cockroach infested places, fathering children by (in this order) his black foster mother, by a Japanese prostitute called Tokyo-Rose, and (as a one-legged World War I casualty) by his nurse. In between this he unknowingly has sex with his mother, who now calls herself Lilly Mae.

But the deus ex machina comes in the form of a detective who's been tracking Jim down for a few years to inform him that he's a rich man: in 1916, Jim's gold-rich grandfather Edius died, living the palatial home of his long-nourished dreams – along with pots of money  – all to his grandson. Et le bon temps roulera.

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