25 November 2013

Pierre Loti: Pêcheur d'Islande (1886)

There is no indication in the first paragraph of Pierre Loti's Pêcheur d'Islande (translated as An Iceland Fisherman) that the opening drinking scene takes place on a boat, although there is a suggestion of this in the evocative phrase of the room being 'tapered at one end like the inside of a huge gutted seagull' ('effil[é] par un bout, comme l'intérieur d'une grande mouette vidée'). Unfortunately the book doesn't continue with the same opening promise, but it's still worth a read.

Pêcheur d'Islande is largely set in Brittany in late nineteenth century Paimpol, where the lives of the people are essentially circumscribed by the men who work in the fishing industry, taking the boat every year from the Breton town to fish cod off the coast of Iceland from the end of February to the end of August. Austerity is the norm.

And death is also common,  recorded on the tombstones in the town cemetery and those in the small cemetery in Iceland. The huge, handsome protagonist Jean (known as Yann here) is in his late twenties and is a close friend of Sylvestre, a mere innocent (Loti mentions his virginity and his shyness a few times) and in his late teens he is sent to China for his military service, is seriously wounded, and only makes the return journey as far as Singapore. His death devastates his grandmother Yvonne.

Living with Yvonne is the other main character in this book, which is more a sentimental love story than a book of gritty realism: Gaud comes from a wealthy family, her father having made a fortune in the fishing industry, but she isn't inerested in money and loves Yann with an unquenchable passion, although he doesn't respond to her obvious love. Until, that is, her father gambles all the money away and she becomes far poorer than Yann himself. It's then that Yann reciprocates the love, they enjoy six days of married bliss, and then Yann, like so many other men, gets killed on the return journey from Iceland.

The book is thick with sentimentality, and it's perhaps not surprising that this is Loti's most popular book, although there are many redeeming features here. If only Loti hadn't made Yann and Gaud so perfect: there are a few very minor phrases about Yann getting his wild oats, and he very rarely gets drunk (doesn't even touch a drop on his wedding day); but Gaud? no, I can't see a single blemish – this is just not realistic.

The link to my other Loti post is below:

Pierre Loti, Rochefort, and Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron

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