Where last week’s posts took us to Poland (and Lithuania) in the company of a classic tale and a more contemporary work, this week sees us heading in a very different direction. I’ve read several books from Quebec over the past couple of years, and this week I’ll be looking at two more, both from publishers that will be familiar to anyone following my posts. The setting of today’s choice, though, is a far warmer place, and while it’s an idyllic spot, it’s not long before we see the horrors that lie hidden in the midst of the tranquillity…
Larry Tremblay’s L’orangeraie (an English version, The Orange Grove is available from Peirene Press in Sheila Fischman’s translation) is a short novel set in an unnamed country, presumably somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa. Two young twin boys, Amed and Aziz, are growing up in the pleasant surrounds of an orange grove near the mountains, but we soon find out (on the very first page…) that life there is not as peaceful as might be expected:
Amed et Aziz ont trouvé leurs grands-parents dans les décombres de leur maison. Leur grand-mère avait le crâne défoncé par une poutre. Leur grand-père gisait dans son lit, déchiqueté par la bombe venue du versant de la montagne où le soleil, chaque soir, disparaissait.
p.13 (La Table Ronde, 2015)
Amed and Aziz found their grandparents among the rubble of their home. Their grandmother’s skull had been crushed by a rafter. Their grandfather was lying in bed, torn to pieces by the bomb that had come from beyond the slope of the mountain, where the sun vanished every evening.
*** (my translation)
The country appears to be in the midst of a war, civil or otherwise, and Soulayed, a visitor to their home, explains the nature of the conflict to the boys, warning them of the threat from beyond the mountains.
However, the boy’s war experiences don’t stop there. Soulayed’s visit is far from a social one, and slowly the boys realise that they too have a role to play in the hostilities. Their father, Zahed, has been asked to choose one of the twins to make the ultimate sacrifice. A belt packed with explosives has been brought into the midst of the orange grove, and Zahed must now decide who will wear it to make the trip across the mountains. It’s an impossible choice, but one of the boys will be sent to his death…
L’orangeraie is a short heart-rending tale, a confronting novel about the horrors of war. Tremblay examines how much can ever be justified, even in the fiercest of conflicts, with a particular focus on the role of children. Each step of the journey brings more horrors, and we see how innocence is lost when adults decide to drag children into their affairs, demanding more than any child could possibly be expected to offer. The fact that the boys in question here are identical twins is a further complication. The two have spent their lives together, so their impending separation seems all the crueller.
As a reader, we are horrified by finding an environment where making decisions like these is considered normal. The boys are both eager to be the chosen one, and their father is proud to have been asked to provide a martyr. However, their heartbroken mother, Tamara, sees Soulayed’s plan very differently:
Ton père dit que c’est un homme qui voit l’avenir. Un homme important qui nous protège de nos ennemis. Tous le respectent, personne n’oserait lui désobéir. Ton père le craint. Moi, dès que je l’ai vu, je l’ai trouvé arrogant. Ton père n’aurait pas dû accepter qu’il passe le seuil de notre maison. Qui lui a donné le droit d’entrer chez les gens et de leur enlever leurs enfants? (p.59)
Your father says that he’s a man who sees the future. An important man who protects us from our enemies. Everyone respects him, no one would ever dare to disobey him. You father is afraid of him. As for me, since the moment I first saw him, I’ve found him arrogant. Your father should never have allowed him to cross the threshold of our house. Who gave him the right to enter people’s homes and take away their children? ***
But what can she do in a society where the man’s voice is what counts? Her plan is to make the most of a bad situation – but for that she’ll need her sons’ help.
The novel is cleverly designed with a three-part structure. The first sets the scene, building the tension until the final decision is made, while the second shows the aftermath and the consequences of the family’s actions. The final part, set a decade later, then takes us to Quebec, where a university drama teacher is attempting to put on a play about the horrors of war. It’s here that we find a familiar face among the cast of students – a survivor, full of survivor’s guilt.
Mikaël, the director of the play, gets a harsh reality check when his leading man reveals his true identity, and the tale he hears makes him reconsider his plans for the piece. He is our representative in the novel, the outsider with preconceived ideas who must now listen to those who really know the sacrifices war demands. As he hears the story of the boys who went to war, he asks himself:
Qu’aurait-il fait, lui, dans de pareilles situations? Aurait-il été, comme des millions d’autres hommes, capable de tuer pour défendre une idée, un bout de terre, une frontière, du pétrole? Aurait-il été lui aussi conditionné à tuer des innocents, femmes et enfants? Ou aurait-il eu le courage, au risque de sa vie, de refuser l’ordre qu’on lui donnait d’abbatre d’une rafale de mitraillette des gens sans défense? (p.133)
What would he have done in similar situations? Would he, like millions of other men, have been capable of killing to defend a cause, a scrap of land, a border, oil? Would he also have been conditioned into killing the innocent, women and children? Or would he have had the courage, at the risk of his own life, to refuse the order he had been given to cut down defenceless people with a burst of machine-gun fire? ***
As you might imagine, the reader is also forced to take a good, long look at their consciences…
Tremblay’s novel is short and simple in many ways, and a quick and easy read. However, it’s also poignant and affecting, with the writer actually concealing far more than we realise. As the story progresses, it twists slightly, with several surprises, and it’s often a good idea to go back and reconsider earlier events in the light of new facts. The last section is also impressive. Just when you think the story couldn’t get any sadder, the final version of events contains one more savage blow.
I’m not sure that The Orange Grove got a whole lot of coverage when it appeared in English, and that’s a shame because this is a wonderful little book. It’s the sort of novel that could easily have been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (I can definitely think of a couple of books I’d happily have tossed aside in favour of this one…), and yet another wonderful choice by Peirene Press. While short, it’s never less than compelling, and it’s certainly a story that lingers in the memory. Hopefully, a few more readers will give it a try, and if they do, perhaps we might get more of Tremblay’s work in English in the not-too-distant future.
UPDATE (24/9/18): FYI – it seems that the Peirene edition is not the only English-language version out there! From what I can tell, there have also been separate Canadian (from Biblioasis) and US (from Milkweed Editions) releases, with all three featuring Sheila Fischman’s translation 🙂