“Never feels forced” – The Open Road by Jean Giono (trans. by Paul Eprile)

IMG_20Oct2021at130448We never learn the narrator’s name, although we do learn an awful lot of other things. His taste in women, and the way in which he styles his facial hair in order to attract a certain kind. How he likes to stand in the kitchen warming his backside at the fire. Above all his polite but absolute disinterest in staying in a single place for too long. It’s 1950 or so, in the south of France, exactly where is never made clear. But it hardly matters; the narrator is a man on the move. He walks, with cash in his pocket – or not – from village to village, sleeping outdoors when he must but indoors when suitable opportunities arise. He’s chosen this nomadic life so reasons never mentioned – they aren’t needed, since he knows himself. The shadow of the war is there, only indirectly mentioned once, not made much of, and if that’s the direct reason we’ll never know. It’s clear he’s been doing this for long enough the road feels like his home. He’s capable, friendly and savvy, in good health, generally honest and hardworking, able to charm directions from remote houses and work from strange towns.

By a river he sees a man repairing a guitar. They go find something to eat and the man – our narrator calls him The Artist – reveals himself to be a card sharp and a con man, dazzling thousands of francs out of the narrator’s pockets. The narrator is delighted. This is not something he sees every day, and his attitude to money is easy come, easy go. The Artist makes his living with his hands, and seems perfectly happy to fall in with the narrator for a while, more or less, and the interlude of their friendship is the main plot of The Open Road, such as it is.

As autumn turns to winter and the snow begins to render the roads impassable, the narrator finds a job as a caretaker for a walnut-oil mill in a small village, running the occasional errand for the owner around the village but mostly staying put. Jean Giono keeps us in the present, inside the narrator’s head, for the entire 210 pages of the book, a neat editorial trick not least because it never feels forced. The story slides down the throat like an oyster – an unusual, not unpleasant sensation, designed to be gulped down whole. This is praise, in case you weren’t sure.

Naturally, the snow has come to stay once and for all. I keep three big woodstoves fired up so that all this equipment and the vats of oil get the coddling they require. Inside here, frost would wreak havoc. With me around, it doesn’t stand a chance. I’m keeping the windowpanes clean. If a snowflake lands on one of them, it’s had it; the surface is warm, human. Early on, birds came to rub themselves up against the glass, the way they would against a cheek. I got a few of them to come inside – the least timid ones, who didn’t take off when I opened the window. They’re still up on the roof beams. I give them seeds and bits of soft bread. But I’m not much of a tamer.”

He might not be much of a tamer, but the friendship between the narrator and the artist is one of those strange connections that occasionally rise up between two people, somewhat to their surprise. Not that we learn what the artist thinks about it, not for a moment. The narrator’s connection to him is almost in spite of them both. Though the artist seems perfectly happy to allow the narrator to take care of things although he is far from a passive character. In the latter part of the book, things go badly wrong, and their relationship curdles into something else. The narrator takes that as it comes, too, with a cheerfully self-centred style that is not quite indifference and the plot sweeps us along into these dark corners without a change in tone. Is it trauma manifesting? Is his commitment to the vagabond lifestyle – sans toit ni loi (neither roofs nor laws) – so strong that this almost excludes average human feeling? Giono never makes this explicit, and neither does the narrator. He is happy for people to think of them as brothers, but is also careful never to assume the artist and he will walk the same path. When the narrator creeps into a cupboard with a willing waitress, he elides exactly what happens between them, too. Is it narcissism? It feels modern, whatever it is.

What’s not modern is the total lack of anxiety displayed by any of the characters. They all seem to know exactly who they are and what they are doing – whether it’s driving tractors at a rural fair, fleeing from a remote household for a bus to a destination unknown, or playing cards for high stakes in a strange house with several people between them and the door. The tide of the incidents flow so cleanly between each other, as the narrator observes the world and the people around him, that the pages turn almost by themselves.

Any Cop?: It’s a joy to read a book that knows exactly what it’s about and what it’s doing, one where the form and the plot are profoundly intertwined into a remarkable interlude.

Sarah Manvel

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