12 August 2018

Claudie Gallay: Les Déferlantes | Breakers (2008)

Drip, drip, drip. That's the way the information in Claudie Gallay's Les Déferlantes (trans. as Breakers) comes through here: slowly revealing tiny points in an enticingly poetic fashion. Most characters here have secrets, and it is the unnamed female narrator, who frequently speaks silently to a past lover and has obviously been hurt in some way because of him, to whom the revelations come. She has been a teacher in Provence, but now makes ornithological reports at the Cap de la Hague, on the north-western tip of the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. She has moved into a huis clos situation where most people seem to spend much time watching others.

The language itself is subtly devastating, and it would be easy to imagine the life and events here in a medieval context, although we know that the poet Jacques Prévert once lived here (so it's after 1977), audio-cassettes are mentioned, as is telephone sex, the mentally wounded narrator has ceased to use her mobile phone, and a bottle of 1997 wine is mentioned. But there's no internet or even computers mentioned.

The inspiration for the main theme of the story is Prévert's brief poem 'Le Gardien du phare aime trop les oiseaux' ('The Lighthouse Keeper Likes Birds Too Much'), although this poem isn't mentioned in the book: incidentally, many things aren't initially mentioned because silence and verbal constipation rule here, anything spoken seems too painful to be said.

The narrator plays detective here, achieving much more than the ex-cop Lambert can – he's come here partly to sell the family home, partly to investigate what happened all those years ago, when he was only fifteen, when his parents and his baby brother died on their return journey from Aurigny (the French for 'Alderney'), crashing into the rocks. Théo, now an old man, was the lighthouse keeper at the time, and there are suspicions that he inadvertently played God: this is where Prévert's poem comes in, as its about a lighthouse keeper who switches off the light to save birds from killing themselves as, attracted to the glow, they hit the glass.

And then there's the photo of Paul, Lambert's brother, which is stolen from his grave, and it is later discovered that Nan, who ran an orphanage and adopted a child she called Michel. And what about all these letters Théo receives?

There are other colourful characters here too, clustered around the local café run by Théo's daughter Lili: M. Anthelme and his obsession with Prévert, Max the boat-builder with his impossible dreams, La Mère who's not as stupid as she seems, Raphäel the artist, and his sex-crazy sister who thinks the narrator should have a good 'fuck' (she likes to talk rough and dirty) to shake her out of her emotional deadlock.

Certainly the sexual tension between the narrator and Lambert is painful both for them and the reader. But things will be resolved after Lambert's contact with his long lost brother, who's alive and well and living as a monk in the Jura. The narrator and Lambert – now in a deeply satisfying sexual relationship – drive out to see him. They've rejoined the world of people rather than ghosts.

Highly engaging. My only complaint: the language loses much of its poetic impact in exhange for emotional power some time after the halfway mark, so seems a little uneven. But then, it would be difficult to retain the same atmosphere in a 539-page book.

My Claudie Gallay posts:
Claudie Gallay: Les Déferlantes | Breakers
Claudie Gallay: Les Années cerises
Claudie Gallay: L'Office des vivants

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