At one with nature and at odds with man

This is my review of Raboliot (Ldp Litterature) by Genevoix.

For Pierre Fouques, nicknamed "Raboliot", born and bred in rural Sologne, poaching is a way of life. Unable to accept that this is under threat, he becomes addicted to the challenge and risk of outwitting the malicious police officer Bourrel even at the price of neglecting his weak, gentle wife and three young children. The inexorable fate of this flawed yet sympathetic antihero reminds me of the novels of Thomas Hardy, together with the vivid descriptions of the landscape and rural life. Genevoix was a great admirer of Maupassant, which is reflected in his strong narrative drive and the clarity of his prose, despite a peppering of local dialect words not to be found in the dictionary.

Since I have no interest in poaching, still less hunting, I was surprised how absorbing I found the long, climactic description of a daring if not rash poaching expedition. The time Genevoix spent living in Sologne, mixing with the locals, has borne fruit in the authentic voice used to describe, for instance, the process of salvaging valuable young fish from dried up ponds, leaving the marauding "perches d'Amérique to perish; the branches silhouetted against changing patches of sky; the breeze rippling the gold-tipped rye; the sun setting over the undulating fields and lakes; the shapes of pheasants roosting in an oak tree at night, and so on.

As with Maupassant, the story is strong on the subtle changing relationships between people, and the shifting attitudes of various characters, as in real life. With wonderful descriptions of the father-in-law's house packed with expertly stuffed birds, we see how the eccentric taxidermist is at first prepared to shelter Raboliot from the law, urging him to act "honourably" and accept a short prison sentence, whilst at the same time recalling his own glory days as a youthful poacher.

Although I understand the views that this book is overlong and the endless mists, undergrowth and slaughter of small rabbits can get a bit tedious, there is a strong case for reading an old classic – this won the Prix Goncourt in 1925 – which has the power to transport you to an unfamiliar way of life with its ambience, sights, scents and sounds. Since Genevoix survived the brutality of World War 1 as a very young man, his immersion in the beauty of nature is understandable, and its redness in tooth and claw perhaps relatively minor.

In some academic studies, Raboliot the poacher has been elevated to provide a symbol in the debate over national versus regional identity in France, a symbol that rejects heroically the strong centralizing dogma of the Third Republic. However, I prefer to view "Raboliot" as a simple battle of wills between an obsessive, authoritarian townie policeman and a simple man with a deep love and knowledge of a countryside and way of life he fights to retain.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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