14 January 2016

Roger Vailland: La Loi (1957)

This powerful 1957 novel was awarded the Prix Goncourt in the same year. Communist Roger Vailland was shattered to learn the truth behind Stalin's lies, and sought refuge with his wife Élizabeth for several months in the Pulgia area of southern Italy, more specifically in the town of Gargano, which becomes masked as Manacore in La Loi, and is where almost all of the action in this claustrophobic novel is set.

The title La Loi refers to the translation of La Legge, a (male-only) bar game played in small towns and villages in southern Italy where everyone knows each other and in which, after the casting of a die or the drawing of a tarot card, a 'boss' emerges to chose a second-in-charge to lay down the Law with over a bottle of wine. The boss can drink as many glasses from the bottle as he wishes, and give or refuse glasses to other players who ask. He has the power to criticise, indeed insult, or even praise any of the other players or anyone else he wishes. For the dispossessed, this is a chance for a moment of glory, a chance to become all-powerful in theory, to make 'The Law'. The Law is a microcosm, here, of the social situation in Manacore.

Manacore suffers from often oppressive heat, oppressive mosquitoes, and oppressive men who think it their right to rape young virgins if they are refused that pleasure. Manacore on first appearances seems to be a place that time has forgotten, although there are glimpses of the twentieth century: the scooters, the cars, and the TV sets, for instance. But socially let's say there's room for growth.

There are feudal echoes here, as in the seventy-two-year-old Don Cesare's long-held 'right' to take women, although this right can easily be concealed by him employing them as servants: he owns a fair amount of land as well as money, so he can make the Law.

Matteo Brigante also makes the Law, has a great deal of money, but is a racketeer, not of the same social status as Don Cesare. Brigante is married, but likes to seduce virgins, such as Mariette, who is sixteen to seventeen here, and cuts Matteo deeply on the cheek with his own greffoir, or grafting knife, when he tries to rape her. This is an example of the 'lesser' sex turning the tables, of Mariette standing up for herself rather than accepting her lot as others would do: an example of a woman making the Law.

Making the Law can be complicated, as in prostitution. A hirer of prostitutes makes the Law by using the woman, but then the woman makes the Law by using the 'john' and establishing the price and creating all the conditions: maybe she has the best of both worlds by making the Law and receiving it, the narrator suggests. But there are no brothels in Manacore, a place where it is said that everyone is everyone else's cop, where if anything clandestine is to be done it has to be done by great cunning and/or a great deal of money.

But positions in the hierarchy are by no means permanent, as proved by the huge upward leap by the rank outsider Mariette, who may well be Don Cesare's daughter, and who gains a great amount of property in his will. As opposed, that is, to her mother and sisters and his servant Tonio, who is forced to join the ranks of the unemployed. A complicated story, but a very interesting one.

My other Roger Vailland posts:

Roger Vailland: Les mauvais Coups
Roger Vailland: 325.000 francs

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