“Lazare Lonsonier was reading in the bath when news of the outbreak of the First World War reached Chile.”
A NEW novel from Bonnefoy! A treat. We are in Chile, imagine a large wood table, the aviary next door, tropical leaves shading the room, a whiff of engine oil, a discarded trumpet or two, the smell of freshly baked communion wafers, a magnum of uncle’s wine, Bonnefoy is regaling us with a family history, pulling strands together from the French vineyards being decimated by phylorexa, from conscription in the first world war, fighter planes in the second, a French world history in miniature. The humour is not quite Gallic, not quite quite south Atlantic. Even in translation the descriptions dance lightly:
“His eyebrows were as wild as caper bushes, his hair smooth and very black, and his lips so wide that when he smiled, his mouth stretched as wide as a concertina.”
The witch doctor Aukun apart, we are all arriviste in the new world like the rather lovely umbrella salesman who disembarks to find himself blessed in the rainiest city in the world.
Bonnefoy has that rare gift of being able to roll through new imaginations, his plots going off like firework displays of the unexpected, his family being people you might want to spend more time with. But this is a tale with a dark message, the more abrasive when it arrives for being wrapped in such rich tapestries. He tends his tell his story backwards, so it is effect before cause. Any other writer might have told this saga rather differently.
His hero Ilario is also a writer whose zeal is manifest. “Characters began to throng in to the cathedral of his mind, as if arriving for a party, forming an entire land of fables and battles.” There is a very writerly touch where the paragraph on page 11 repeats itself in page 149, to complete a cycle.
His revenge is in his pen, mightier than the electric wrack. The shock is detonated. You might almost say it is so perfectly formed that when the fable runs into reality, it hurts.