The New York Times
By a Slow Riverby Philippe Claudel
A bestseller in France and winner of the Prix Renaudot, By a Slow River is a mesmerizing and atmospheric tale of three mysterious deaths in an oddly isolated French village during World War I.The placid daily life of a small town near the front seems impervious to the nearby pounding of artillery fire and the parade of wounded strangers passing through its/i>… See more details below
A bestseller in France and winner of the Prix Renaudot, By a Slow River is a mesmerizing and atmospheric tale of three mysterious deaths in an oddly isolated French village during World War I.The placid daily life of a small town near the front seems impervious to the nearby pounding of artillery fire and the parade of wounded strangers passing through its streets. But the illusion of calm is soon shattered by the deaths of three innocents–the charming new schoolmistress who captures every male heart only to kill herself; an angelic ten-year-old girl who is found strangled; and a local policeman’s cherished wife, who dies alone in labor while her husband is hunting the murderer. Twenty years later, the policeman still struggles to make sense of these tragedies, a struggle that both torments and sustains him. But excavating the town's secret history will bring neither peace to him nor justice to the wicked.
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It's very difficult to find the beginning. So much time has gone by that words will never bring back—and the faces too, the smiles, the wounds. Even so, I must try. I have to cut open the belly of the mystery and stick my hands deep inside, even if none of that will change a thing.
If somebody were to ask me how on earth I know all the things I'm going to recount, I'd answer that I just do. I know them because for twenty years they've been as familiar to me as the fall of night and the dawn of day. Because in fact I've spent my life trying to piece them together, to put them into place. So they can speak and I can listen. That used to be my job, more or less.
I'll be calling forth a lot of shadows, but one will be out front. It belongs to a certain Pierre-Ange Destinat. He was the prosecutor in V for more than thirty years, and he plied his trade like clockwork, never faltering, never breaking down. Actually, you could say he was an artist, and he didn't even need a museum to show his art. In 1917, at the time of the Case—as people here called it, always with a sigh, it seemed—he was over sixty and had retired only the previous year. Though he hardly spoke, he always made a great impression. He was a tall impassive man who resembled an indifferent bird, far-off and majestic, with pale eyes that never seemed to move and lips whose thinness he didn't bother to disguise with a moustache. His forehead was high and his hair a most distinguished gray.
V is about twenty kilometers from our town. Twenty kilometers in 1917 was very far indeed, especially in winter--especially in a war that showed no interest in ending. The war caused great commotion on the roads as they became jammed with handcarts and trucks, flooded with stinking fumes and thousands of thunderclaps. Even though the front was fairly nearby, from our town it seemed an invisible monster, another country.
Destinat was known by different names, depending on whom one asked and where. Among the inmates in the jail at V, he was generally called Bloodsucker. In one cell I even saw a drawing of him, carved with a knife on the thick oak door—not a bad likeness, in fact. Admittedly, the artist had had plenty of time to admire the model during the fifteen long days of his trial.
When we ran into Pierre-Ange Destinat on the street, the rest of us called him Mr. Prosecutor. Men raised their caps to him, and women of the humbler sort curtsied. Fine ladies of his own social class would incline their heads ever so slightly, like little birds when they drink from gutters. Whatever the greeter or greeting, it seemed no matter. He didn't answer—or did it so faintly you would've needed four well-polished opera glasses to see his lips move. But it wasn't disdain, as most believed; I think it was simply detachment.
All the same, there was one young lady who had almost understood him, a girl I will speak of again and who called him Sadness, a nickname she kept to herself. Maybe it's her fault that everything happened—but then, she never knew anything about it.
At the beginning of the century, a prosecutor was still a figure of great importance. And in time of war, when a single hail of bullets could mow down a whole company of solid lads, seeking the death of one lone man in chains required craftsmanship. I don't think he acted out of cruelty when he went after the head of some poor slob who had battered the postman or disemboweled his mother-in-law. The jerk stood in front of him between two officers, with handcuffs on his wrists, but at best Destinat hardly noticed him. He looked right through, as if the man had already ceased to exist. Destinat never prosecuted a flesh-and-blood criminal; he defended an idea, simply an idea: his own idea of good and evil.
When his sentence was pronounced the convicted criminal would howl, burst into tears, or fly into a rage. Sometimes he'd raise his hands to heaven, as if he'd suddenly remembered his catechism. By now, though, he was entirely invisible to Destinat. The prosecutor would be putting his notes away in his briefcase, four or five sheets on which he'd composed his closing argument, purple ink in his small refined script, a handful of well-chosen words that reliably made the court shudder and the jurors reflect, unless they were asleep; a few words that sufficed to erect a scaffold as if in an instant, surer than two journeyman carpenters could have done in a week.
He bore no grudge against the condemned. I saw the proof of that with my own eyes, in a hallway just following the verdict. Destinat emerged with his Cato-like air, his beautiful ermine still on his back, and came face-to-face with the Widow's future husband—the Widow, that's what they called the guillotine. The prisoner harangued him plaintively, eyes still red from having just heard his awful fate, and now full of remorse that he'd ever pumped those gunshots into his boss's gut. "Mistah Prosecutor," he whined, "Mistah Prosecutor . . ." Destinat looked him right in the eye, oblivious to the bailiff and the handcuffs, put a hand on his shoulder, and answered, "Yes, my friend. We've already met, haven't we? What can I do for you?" As sincere as you please—no mockery at all. The condemned man looked stunned. It was as if a second sentence had been pronounced on top of the first.
Following the end of every trial, Destinat would have lunch at the Rébillon, across from the cathedral. The owner is a fat man with a head white and yellow, like an endive, and a mouthful of rotten teeth. His name is Bourrache. He's not very clever, but he has a good head for money. That's his nature: no fault of his. He always wears a large apron of blue wool that makes him look like a girthed-up barrel. He used to have a wife who never left her bed; she suffered from sluggishness, as we say in this region, where it's not uncommon for certain women to confuse the November fogs with their own distress. When she finally died it was less on account of this illness—which after a time she'd probably put on as a permanent mantle—than because of what had happened, because of the Case.
At the time, the Bourrache daughters were like three little lilies, but with a pure touch of blood that brightened their complexions to a glow. The youngest was barely ten. She had no luck—or maybe she had a lot. Who knows?
The other two merely bore their first names, Aline and Rose, while everyone called the smallest one Belle and a few would-be poets made it Belle-de-jour—Morning Glory. When I would see all three of them in the room, carrying carafes of water, liters of wine, and silverware, among dozens of men who talked too loudly and drank too much, it seemed as if someone had arranged the flowers to relieve the sordidness of the atmosphere. And even in the company of her sisters, the little one looked so unspoiled as to seem not of our world.
When Destinat entered the restaurant, Bourrache—a man of habit—always treated him to the exact same greeting: "Another one cut down to size, Mr. Prosecutor!" Destinat would never answer, and Bourrache would show him to his seat. The prosecutor's table, one of the best, was reserved for him year-round. I didn't say the best, because that would have been the one nearest the enormous earthenware stove beside the window hung with crocheted curtains giving onto the entire Courthouse Square; that table was for Judge Mierck. A regular, Judge Mierck ate there four times a week. His belly told the tale, sagging down well beyond his waist; so did his skin, scored with broken veins as though all the Burgundies he'd drunk were waiting in line to be flushed out. Mierck didn't like the prosecutor very much. The feeling was mutual. I might even be putting it too mildly. Yet we would see them greet each other solemnly, doffing their hats, like two men opposed in life's every matter who share its daily course all the same.
The oddest thing was that Destinat went so rarely to the Rébillon that his table remained unoccupied about three quarters of the time. That caused Bourrache a fine loss of income, but he wouldn't have given that table to someone else for anything in the world, even on big fair days when all the peasants from miles around, having felt the rumps of all the prized cows, came to stuff themselves. By lunchtime they would have become insistent, on a liter of plum brandy, their heads spinning with thoughts of winding up at Ma Nain's whorehouse to ease themselves. But the table stayed unoccupied even as patrons were being turned away. One time Bourrache went so far as to eject a cattle trader who had dared to demand it. The man never came back.
"Better to have a king's table without the king than to seat somebody with manure all over his shoes!" That was Bourrache's romantic explanation, one day when I was needling him.
The first Monday of December 1917 was freezing cold. The clatter of the ground under your heels could be felt reverberating up to your neck. The large blanket they'd thrown over the body got soaked in a hurry as the two other cops, Berfuche, a short guy with ears like a wild pig, hairs sticking out of them, and Grosspeil, an Alsatian whose family had emigrated forty years earlier, stood watching over it near the bank of the canal. A little farther back stood young Bréchut. A boxy fellow with hair as stiff as broom straw, he yanked on his vest, not too sure what he ought to do: stay or leave. He was the one who'd spotted her in the water on his way to work at the port authority, where he kept the accounts. (He still does, only he's twenty years older now and every straw has fallen out of the broom.)
Lying on the ground, a ten-year-old's body seems even smaller, especially when it's drenched by winter water. Berfuche pulled back a corner of the blanket to confirm what he knew and puffed into his hands for warmth. Morning Glory's face appeared.
She looked like a fairy with her eyelids blanched and lips turned blue, her hair entangled with the grass, withered brown by morning frosts. Her little hands had clutched at emptiness. It was so cold that day that all our moustaches whitened with hoarfrost as we huffed and stamped our feet like bulls getting ready to charge. In the sky some dim-witted geese were circling. They seemed to have lost their way. The sun huddled in his mantle of fog, which was fraying more and more. Even the cannon in the distance seemed to have frozen. You couldn't hear a thing.
"Maybe it's peace at last," ventured Grosspeil.
"Peace my ass!" His colleague snorted as he replaced the wet blanket over the little girl's body.
We were waiting for the gentlemen from V. Finally they arrived, accompanied by the mayor, who looked very much out of sorts, as you might too if you'd been jerked out of bed at the crack of dawn, especially in weather you wouldn't put a dog out in. There was Judge Mierck; his court clerk, whose name I never knew, though everyone called him Crusty because of a nasty eczema that ate away at the left half of his face; three cocksure policemen; and a military officer. I don't know what he was doing there, but he didn't hang around for long; one look at the murder scene and he keeled right over and we had to carry him to Jacques's Cafe. I figured the closest that slicker had ever come to a bayonet was in the armory, and maybe not even then. You could tell from his flawlessly ironed uniform, tailored for a mannequin at Poiret's. He must have been waging war beside a good cast-iron stove—sitting in a big velvet armchair—and then in the evening telling young ladies in long gowns all about the action, under gilded moldings and crystal chandeliers, among the bewigged musicians of a chamber orchestra, a glass of champagne in his hand.
Underneath his fancy Kronstadt hat and bon-vivant airs, Judge Mierck was a man of no feeling. All those wine sauces may have tinged his ears and nose, but they hadn't made him tender. He lifted the blanket himself and stared at Morning Glory for quite a while. The others were waiting for a word, a sigh: after all, he used to see her almost every day when he gorged himself at the Rebillon. He looked down at the little body as if it were a stone or a piece of driftwood that had been fished out, his eyes as icy as the water that flowed close by.
"It's Bourrache's youngest girl," somebody murmured into his ear, in a tone that bespoke everything he wouldn't say. "The poor little thing, she was just ten years old. Imagine—only yesterday she was bringing my bread and smoothing out my tablecloth."
With a start, Judge Mierck rocked back on his heels toward the man who'd dared to address him. "A corpse is a corpse!"
Before that moment we had all accepted Judge Mierck for what he was. He had his place and he held it, not liked much, but respected. But on that first Monday of December, by the mortal remains of this little girl, his words, and even more how matter-of-factly he said them, almost cheerfully, with a gleam in his eyes at having a murder case at last, a real one, for it was murder, no doubt about it!—in this time of war, when all the killers had forsaken civil life so they could ply their aggression more violently in uniform—after that day, people in our region never thought of him without disgust.
"Well, well, well," he said. As he surveyed the scene he was humming, as if about to play skittles or go hunting. Then he realized he was hungry. He had to have some eggs, eggs right away, there on the bank of the little canal, at ten degrees below.
From the Hardcover edition.
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