14 April 2018

Blaise Cendrars: L'Or, La merveilleuse histoire du général Johann August Suter (1925)

One translation of Blaise Cendrars's book is called Gold: The Marvellous History of General John Augustus Sutter:  the 't' doubles in English. I've not read of Cendrars's motives for writing this fictionalised biography, but he was a lifelong friend of Auguste Suter, the Swiss sculptor, and the novel is written with great admiration for the man.

Sutter wasn't exactly a globetrotter like Cendrars, although the book takes us from his leaving his wife and family in Switzerland to emigrate to the United States, where he becomes an immensely rich businessman, but then ironically loses it all in the gold rush.

The story charts the progress of the penniless, theiving Sutter through France to the coast, where he boards a boat for North America, gets through Ellis Island, spends four years in New York learning how to survive, then greatly risks his life travelling across the continent to California, to San Francisco, or Yerba Buena as it was in the early nineteenth century, when it belonged to Mexico.

Land is dirt cheap, and Sutter buys up a large area of it, builds farms on it, maintains a number of workers, becomes a multi-millionaire, and is highly respected by all. But then when gold is discovered on his property all hell lets loose, he strives to keep his land and his business but the ruthless mob of gold seekers – coming from all parts of the country and as word spreads all parts of the world – don't respect him at all and destroy all he has, including killing two of his sons after his family leaves Switzerland to join him: his wife dies very soon after she arrives.

The latter part of Sutter's life is spent in law cases, in trying to gain some of the money he considers is rightfully his, and for much of the time he lives in poverty. He dies a broken man.

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