The Bastides Blanches are just four little houses in Provence, not enough to even qualify as a village. The four households who live in these homes, plus the drifter Gagou, form the community at the heart of Jean Giono’s 1929 novella Hill, newly translated into English by Paul Eprile. I received this book a couple of months ago as part of my New York Review of Books Classics subscriptions, and when I saw that several bloggers were going to be participating in a readalong of the book, organized by Scott and Dorian, I decided that this would be a good time to read it.
As Hill begins, it looks like a pleasant enough depiction of rural life, but it eventually takes some dark turns, and as I approached the end, I wondered just how dark it might get. The first grim scenario involves the incipient death of Janet, the patriarch of one of the households. As he approaches death, he begins to hallucinate, imagining that there are snakes coming out of the tips of his fingers. When his son-in-law, Gondran, assures him there are no snakes, Janet scoffs:
“So you think you see everything do you, with your pathetic eyes? Can you see the wind too, you with your tremendous powers?
“When you come right down to it, you’re incapable of looking at a tree and seeing anything but a tree.
“People like you believe trees are dropped straight into the ground, with their leaves and all, and that’s the end of it, right there. Oh boy, if only it were so, it would be so easy.
As Janet raves in his bed, the little cluster of families experience other troubles. The spring runs out of water, a little girl becomes ill, a black cat appears and brings a sense of doom. And the community wants answers.
Giono shows an intense respect for nature in this book, in part through his descriptions of the surroundings and the expressed need to preserve them but also through showing nature’s power to change lives, for good or for bad. Nature is a living thing, as Godron realizes when he’s out working in the field and suddenly comes upon and furiously attacks a small lizard.
He’s caused flesh and blood to suffer, flesh just like his own.
So all around him, on this earth, does every action have to lead to suffering?
Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals?
Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder?
It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill.
And when he scythes, he slays.
So that’s the way it is–is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic, runaway barrel, leveling everything in his path?
It seems to me that this line of thought is just one of the characters’ many attempts to try to create a sense of order in the world. Nature makes them suffer because they make nature suffer. If they can understand the logic of the world, perhaps even see ahead, they’ll be able to control it. It’s an impossible hope, of course, and the attempt nearly tears the community apart. Yet being in community is the thing most likely to save them all.
This is a short book, that accelerates quickly once it gets going. The momentum that builds shows how panic and fear can spread, leading to disaster. But the converse is that healthy fear is needed to prevent destruction. Giono shows both reactions at work. There’s a lot here to ponder, and I look forward to seeing what others made of the story.