Sunday, May 19, 2019

Voyages Extraordinaires #31: Le Chemin de France

My name is Natalis Delpierre. I was born in 1761, at Grattepanche, a village in Picardy. My father was a farm laborer. He worked on the estate of the Marquis d'Estrelle. My mother did her best to help him. My sisters and I followed our mother's example.

My father never possessed any property. He was precentor at the church, and had a powerful voice that could be heard even in the graveyard. The voice was almost all I inherited from him.

My father and mother worked hard. They both died the same year, 1779. God has their souls in His keeping!

Natalis Delpierre becomes a soldier and fights in the American Revolution, and then for the king, and then for the Republic. It is a time of great tension, as none of the other Powers trust the French Republic, and Germany in particular seems inclined to invade. Because of this, Delpierre takes two months' leave from the army to go to Germany and find his sister, Irma, who is servant and companion to a half-French family there, the Kellers, in order to bring her back safely. However, it turns out not to be possible to bring her back immediately, and war breaks out while he is there. This will lead Delpierre, Irma, and the Kellers to the journey that gives the book its title, Le Chemin de France (in English, The Flight to France).

The book is a light and easy read, with twenty-five very short chapters. The narrator is quite engaging. As with most of Verne's books, the backbone of it is a geographically precise journey, this time in the midst of war zone. That sounds perhaps more interesting than it is; the primary difficulty for the protagonists is not the war but the need to evade arrest when everyone is at the height of their suspicions; the armies affect their travel primarily by forcing them to go a long and difficulty road around in order to avoid them, which causes them to overstay on their passport. This is not to say that there is no excitement, nor does the story drag in any way (it is too short to drag), but aside from a couple of brief brushes with death and the urgency of a deadline, it largely ends up being a tale of a trip on which everything goes wrong. It's interesting, but in a way it's only very accidentally a war story.

I read it in English translation, in a cheap copy I picked up; although there was no indication of the translator, I believe that the translation was that by I. O. Evans, which, if so, means that the translation was probably usually so-so. Indeed, looking at the French, it's noticeable that the translation above strips out all the specifically Catholic references; what Delpierre actually says is that his father was a cantor, singing the Confiteor, with a loud voice that could be heard in the cemetery near the church, and could have been a priest, being a 'peasant dipped in ink', but his voice was about all that Delpierre inherited from him. The omissions are not essential to the story; that Delpierre's father was a cantor plays no role in the story, except that it makes sense of why he says that he only inherited his father's voice -- Delpierre is not the priestly or scholarly type, so his narrative will be rough and uneducated (in fact, Delpierre only starts learning to read and write in the course of the story he as narrator is setting down later in life). It's the kind of little value-adding detail that translations like this sandpaper away.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.