Wild Dog by Serge Joncour.
‘People tend to forget past catastrophes just as they fail to see new ones developing.’
Ain’t that the truth! Everything is so dominated by Covid-19 at the moment that I can’t help reading a sentence like this without it slapping me in the face, it seems so relevant. Chien-Loup was published in France two years ago, and, of course, this has nothing to do with the current crisis. On the other hand, as this book is taking a long hard look at what it is that speaks to our humanity that little observation is spot on.
Wild Dog reflects on our capacity to forget, to be taken by surprise over and over again, learning little from history, constantly seeking to reinvent the wheel and in doing so losing our sense of what it is that distinguishes us from the animals. This is an immensely powerful read examining our place in the world. If reasoning distinguishes us why is it so easily diverted by primal instincts? How come we are capable of greater transgressions against our own and other kind than other species exhibit? This is nothing less than a rumination on our coexistence with nature.
Having just finished Marion Brunet’s brilliant novel Summer of Reckoning I was expecting a bit of a come down with my next read. Something less intellectually challenging, not a bit of it, Wild Dog is a magnificent philosophical thriller and an equally stunning read. Every word matters, each thought runs into the next with purpose and clarity. This is a perfect example of the power, energy and insight of French crime fiction. Brunet examines the psychology of a family and a small town, Joncour tackles even grander themes around the psychological impetuses of mankind in the context of a riveting mystery. On the back of this one novel I would say Joncour ranks with Vargas and Lemaitre in his exploration of morally complex issues. Set over two time frames over a century apart Wild Dog tells a unique story with style and wit. This is a novel pregnant with suspense and unpredictability, wickedly tense and portentous, doom laden. The parallels and connection between the two stories are far more apparent than the paths the stories will take, the themes are clear, the mystery is something Joncour manages to maintain to the end.
July 1914. The village is woken from its slumber around midnight by wild sounds emanating from the deeply forested hills, desperate unidentifiable shrieks, could it be wolves on the attack? Are the animals reclaiming the darkness? The villagers bang spoons, making as much noise as they can to scare away the threat, the noise gets louder, the supposed danger nearer, primal fears are aroused. With everyone watching the trees a stranger emerges, his donkey in tow, the noise dies down, the people return to their beds, as mysteriously as he arrived the stranger is gone again the next day. It’s potent imagery because:
‘Seeing the wandering stranger should have helped them realise that tomorrow they would wake up to the dawn of a new age which would be rung in with madness, gunfire, fear in above all, blood.’
Allegorical beasts in the night are nothing compared to what is coming, a waking nightmare that will take the father’s and sons of Orcièrs. The internecine conflict occasioned by a row between members of the same royal family will cast a pall over Europe. No one in Orcièrs asked for a war, this is a village hidden in the Causse many miles from the border. Joncour is conjuring an image of the village as prey to the outside world:
‘In a few days’ time, the war would start to devour their men by the trainload, and by its end, four terrible years later, it would have destroyed four empires and fifteen million lives.’
The animals, food and equipment of Orcièrs are soon requisitioned. They expected people to die but not the animals as ‘humanity embraced barbarity, rage, and death’. The mayor hides a flock of sheep, the women take over the harvest. Then the German lion tamer arrives, Wolfgang Hollzenmaier, no one has need of a circus now, he can’t stay in the village but he takes his animals into the hills:
‘There were no bomb to be heard in Orcièrs, only lions and storms.’
They don’t denounce him but they are afraid of him. They are curious about how he feeds his animals. Josephine, the first widow, is despatched to find out but becomes attached to the German and his animals. The German and the widow become the focus of attention for the village, a distraction from the front and the war…
April 2017. Lise and Franck need a holiday. Lise is drawn to the advert for the isolated gîte in the hills, the idea of tranquillity, a return to nature, sun and peacefulness. The nearest neighbour ten kilometres away, twenty-five kilometres to the nearest town:
‘For years she had longed to cut yourself off from the world by spending three weeks with no internet or mobile phone and here was the perfect opportunity to go completely offline.’
No noise, pollution, or electromagnetic fields. Franck was more sceptical and insisted he needed the internet for his work, gradually he came round. When they arrive the cabin offers an ‘awesome panorama’, abandonment is mixed with a feeling of infinite contentment. Franck thinks:
‘They could be happy here . . . Or it could be hell.’
The idea of the idyll is subtly undermined at every turn. That’s when Franck encounters the Wild Dog a large untamed beast that seems to be looking for a master. Franck, Lise and the dog form an uneasy alliance. Again the portends hang heavy…
The novel is a juxtaposition of past and present, of nature versus modern living, peace and quiet versus a wall of noise, of primal instincts versus intellectual reasoning, of where the real escape lies. Franck is in films, he is desperately trying to get a project off the ground:
‘In the film world more than any other, your survival depends on the scent you give off.’
Where are the carnivores in this story, the wild animals or the human, (wolves), predators? Joncour’s tale is redolent with fear, guilt, jealousy, pain and the fluid relationship between thought and instinct.
Serge Joncour is a French novelist and screenwriter with a substantial body of work behind him but Wild Dog is his first novel translated into English, something accomplished beautifully by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh. Winner of the Prix Landerneau Des Lecteurs 2018. I can only hope that more will follow.
GALLIC BOOKS, paperback, March ISBN 9781910977793