While the good people of QC Fiction are dedicated to bringing the best of Québécois fiction to an Anglophone readership, that doesn’t mean that all of their books are set in Canada. So far their offerings have taken us to Latin America, Europe and even Hollywood, and today’s choice is another story set overseas. This time we’re off to post-war France to spend some time in the countryside with a rather unusual young boy, one whose parents seem oddly disinclined to show him any affection. Let’s see if we can find out why…
Éric Mathieu’s The Little Fox of Mayerville (translated by Peter McCambridge, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins shortly after World War Two in the small town of Mayerville (“295 souls”) in the French region of Lorraine. The birth of Émile Claudel, far from bringing joy to his parents, seems to be an inconvenience, and his constant prattling (in a Tin-Drum-esque manner, the infant is able to speak perfectly in several languages) drives his mother mad. The new son’s unusual appearance, with his red hair, protruding ears and long nose, soon earns him the nickname of the little fox, and as he gets older, he certainly develops a crafty intelligence worthy of the name.
His appearance and volubility alone would hardly seem to justify the way he’s treated at home (his father ignores him, his mother is frequently openly hostile towards him), and it soon becomes clear that there’s a secret surrounding his birth. Rumours as to Émile’s real father resound through the village, and the boy decides to investigate the mystery, with an old woman living on the outskirts of the village providing him with his first clues:
“So, well…” she said, clearing her throat. “Well, people say a lot of things. Of course, I know all about the village because I’ve lived here since I was born. So, young man,” she said, taking my hand, “They say your papa was an American, a G.I.”
“A G.I.?” I said, my eyes widening.
“Yes. Let me explain.”
p.89 (QC Fiction, 2019)
This conversation is Émile’s first step towards understanding his background, but as he grows up, the mystery takes several different directions. Later, when his horizons broaden and his interests change, he begins to wonder whether his origins really matter at all.
Peter McCambridge is the translator of two novels by Eric Dupont, and it’s little surprise that Mathieu’s style obviously appeals to him, with several similarities between the two writers. On the one hand, The Little Fox of Mayerville is a baggy, rambling tale à la Dupont’s epic Songs for the Cold of Heart, but it’s also very much a Bildungsroman in the vein of the first QC Fiction title, Life in the Court of Matane. Like those two, Mathieu’s novel is a page-turner, a book that reads very differently to the two shorter works the press has published this year.
At the centre of it all is Émile, a boy growing up unloved. From the start, there are hints that he’s a war baby, which is slightly inconvenient when we consider that his father was a POW at the time of the conception. As a result, his mother’s attitude towards him is confusing and inconsistent, with occasional moments of affection smothered by a more general sense of loathing. It’s little surprise (for us, probably less so for Émile…) when she eventually decides that enough’s enough, and the poor boy is shipped off to a home far away from Mayerville.
To be fair, though, she’s not entirely blameless as our hero isn’t the best behaved of boys. Émile is a bit of a wild child, a feral creature roaming the village causing mischief wherever he can:
One morning, instead of taking the main street, I took to the paths behind the houses. I stole fruit from orchards, I peed against walls and in people’s vegetable gardens. I saw two little girls watch from a window as I urinated on a row of leeks. Once I’d thoroughly watered the vegetables their parents had so carefully planted, I walked up to the window, pulled down my pants, and waved my pecker around in my right hand, sticking out my tongue at the two little girls, who retreated aghast into the penumbra of the room. I laughed as I skipped away. (p.83)
Along with his partner in crime, a summer visitor from Paris called Max, Émile roams the countryside having fun, jumping into rivers and burning down the odd barn. Your typical, idyllic childhood, then 😉
In fact, the focus of the story is less the confused paternity issue than the time and the place, with Mathieu painting us a picture of a sleepy village in 1950s France, complete with its ramshackle houses, dusty shops and old women who may or may not be witches. This is a society recovering from the war, but that never really intrudes into Émile’s childhood, with the only consequence being his freedom to virtually live outside (something that, later on, he actually does). The village is also a world full of secrets that people want to keep hidden, and the local priest (himself a name on Émile’s list of potential fathers) cautions the talkative young boy about the dangers of shooting his mouth off:
He stood and wagged a finger at me.
“Careful, my boy. That can get you in hot water! You’ll have to learn to keep your thoughts to yourself, to hold your tongue and to speak only at the right time. Do you understand? You don’t think before you speak. It’ll get you into trouble.”
“I can’t stand silence.”
“Sometimes it takes a little silence if words are to have an impact. Otherwise they don’t stand out. Words have force only when used in moderation, and when they are to the point. Do you see?” (p.100)
This may be wise advice, but there’s little chance Émile will follow it, hence some of his later issues.
There are strong magical-realism elements to the novel, and young Émile’s precocious language abilities are far from the only example of the bizarre. There are stories of children transforming into animals, and a strange magician the boy falls in with, his bizarre tricks in which people morph gender stunning the audience and Émile alike. In a different time, the people seem both less aware of the wider world and far more superstitious, meaning that there’s the potential for the fantastic everywhere you look. We experience all of this through Émile’s eyes, so there’s probably a fair amount of hyperbole involved, but everywhere he goes, a touch of magic seems to follow him.
While there’s a lot to like about Mathieu’s novel, unfortunately it does run out of steam a little. The last part simply runs through Émile’s teenage years, appearing a little dull compared with the earlier sections, and even if the scattered magical elements are interesting, they can also come across as heavy-handed and unnecessary at times. The main issue, though, is the way the mystery of Émile’s father is handled. As the boy grows up, this aspect of the story becomes ever less important and is eventually simply dropped. I can understand why this happens, but given that this is the hook Mathieu uses to grab the reader, I suspect I won’t be the only one a little disappointed that this strand doesn’t really go anywhere.
Overall, though, The Little Fox of Mayerville is an enjoyable coming-of-age story and a pleasant journey into the past. Even if the initial mystery remains just that, it’s great fun to follow Émile on his journey and reminisce about simpler, more innocent times. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the last part of the book is so bitter-sweet. After spending our days romping through the fields and swimming in rivers, the arrival in the world of work, bars and courting is a disappointment. It’s those magical days messing about by the river that make the book what it is, and that’s what will stay with the reader long after finishing it.