“You do not debate your hunger” – Malicroix by Henri Bosco (translated from the French by Joyce Zonana)

A remote island property is bequeathed to a young man named Jean-Martial de Megremut by a great uncle whom he has never met: Oderic Thierry Cornelius of Malicroix. Martial, the last heir of the Malicroix family line, must prove that he is a genuine Malicroix by enduring a three-month stay on a worthless gothic property on an island as a prerequisite to learning his destiny.

Then he must avenge his uncle.

Set in the early 19th century in rural France and written in 1948, Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (translated by Joyce Zonana) is being reprinted by NYRB classics. Bosco (1888-1976) wrote over 30 volumes of novels and poetry and was nominated four times for the Nobel prize in literature.

Uncle Cornelius’s will demands that Martial remain in the house for three months without leaving the island to gain complete legal control of La Redousse. He must also satisfactorily vanquish a couple rather vague, eerie assignments:

“Megremut will know, first, what he is; then, who he is. If the hidden name is not lost, he will hear it. And if he hears it, I too will hear it in the world toward which . . . I have set my gaze and from which, perhaps, I already speak to him.”

Jean-Martial de Megremut, about 25, is a rather typical upper-class young man of leisure: a stubborn, romantic, pretentious fool with interests in botany, agronomy, and gardening. He is content to eventually marry a cousin and settle into the safe, slotted position of his life.

In addition to the property, Martial also inherits Balandran, a proud, taciturn sheepherder/cook/caretaker who was exceedingly loyal to his uncle. He slips in and out of the house like a ghost and refers to his herd’s ram as the High Priest. Although Martial originally bristled against the old man’s standoffishness, he learns to respect him: “Balandran was a man of thought—thoughts few in number, slow, but patiently held, prudently weighed, rarely spoken.”

Young Martial’s primary antagonist is a notary named Dromiols whose firm has been representing the Malicroix family for decades years. Dromiols is large, powerful, intimidating, and dangerous. He delivers Malicroix’s will in the company of his obsequious, officious clerk named Uncle Rat. Martial becomes suspicious of Dromiols’ intentions since he seems allied with the historical enemy of the family.

The plot of the novel, which broaches revenge, treachery, loyalty, and self-actualisation, is relatively straightforward. Does this urban dandy have the mental stamina and determination to live alone for three months with an old sheepherder and his dog? Does he even want this seemingly worthless property? Although Martial originally implied to Dromoils that he would only stay on the island for a couple of weeks to save face, he changes his mind:

“To stay was becoming my function. It was useless to try to explain my conduct: my arguments seemed laughable. You do not debate your hunger.”

His change of heart is related to the centrality of the metonymy of blood for breeding, lineage, and citizenship. Martial recognizes the inherent responsibility of being the last Malicroix, even though only “three drops” flow in his veins. He accepts his uncle’s challenge: “Only a true Malicroix—after me, about to die—can guarantee a positive outcome.”

Snowstorms, sick ewes, and old-house creaks and shadows complicate Martial’s survival for the three months. Questions surface. How can Martial gain Balandran’s trust? Why have no letters arrived from his family? A mysterious young woman rescued him from a storm, but who is she? Can she be trusted?

I recommend this profoundly well-written, contemplative, and magnificently dramatic novel. Although it is overly spiced for my tastes with references to souls being crushed, broken, shared, or glimpsed, what do you expect for a story set in the early 19th century and written just after WWII?

Any Cop?: Perfectly modulated gothic reading for the self-isolating among us. . . .

Chris Oleson


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