Wild Dog, by Serge Joncour (translated by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh), is in many ways a thriller but written in such rich and sensuous language it demands to be savoured rather than rushed to conclusion. The plot runs across two timelines: the year following the outbreak of the First World War, and August 2017. Both are set in and around a remote French village where incomers are treated with unfriendly wariness.
Opening in July 1914, the superstitious villagers of Orcières are disturbed by the shrieks of unidentified creatures. They look fearfully towards extensive woodland that surrounds a steep hill casting its shadow over the village. They believe the house at its peak is cursed. Nobody now lives there although once it was the centre of a thriving vineyard.
When war arrives it steals the men and also livestock, requisitioned as beasts of burden or to feed the troops. Readers are reminded throughout the story of the barbarity of such man made offensives – the cost borne by those with no choice or understanding, yet made to suffer terribly.
In order to survive, the men’s work must be done by the women of the village. They feel guilt that they can shoulder the burden and worry about the changes this foreshadows.
The first known casualty of the war is the doctor whose wife, Joséphine, appears to be the only resident who has retained her horse. She takes to riding it up the cursed hill where an itinerant circus performer, a German, has been permitted by the mayor to hide his animals. The villagers are disturbed by the roars of lions and tigers that require many kilos of fresh meat to be fed to them regularly at a time when food is scarce.
The more contemporary timeline features a long married couple, Lise and Francke, who work in the film industry. Lise has been ill – blaming irradiated waves from phones and networks – and chose to step back from acting. She seeks solace in painting, meditation and a change in diet to cut out animal products. Following recent failures in the films he makes, Franck started working with two young business partners he hoped would reinvigorate his production company. Instead, he feels threatened by their ideas. When Lise suggests a three week holiday cut off from technology Franck is fearful of what plans will be hatched in his absence.
Lise and Franck rent the remote house on the hill above Orcières. They have never before taken a holiday away from other people. Franck is appalled at the lack of WiFi and mobile phone connection. Lise relaxes into the solitude, relishing the beauty of the location.
Across both timelines tension quickly builds as man and nature vie – predator and prey. Man is, of course, also of nature. And war springs from posturing power play – attempts to prove supremacy and reap the rewards. In the modern world this can also be seen in business deals – the suppressed violence felt against those who seek to neutralise competitors. When Franck befriends a wild dog that appears out of the woodland his primal instincts are awakened. Stripped of society, he seeks to attune with nature and use it to his advantage.
The World War roars on demanding more and more men to fuel its furnace of constructed hatred. In Orcières, Joséphine is struggling with the loneliness of widowhood and fantasises about the lion tamer whose body is so different from the doctor. The villagers blame the German incomer for any ills that befall the village. Voices of the circumspect are drowned out by those of the fearful. What is to be truly feared goes unrecognised.
Apart from a brief lull around the middle of the story, the plot progresses at a carefully crafted pace, building tension from potential threats – real and imagined. The basis of rumours that swirl are gradually revealed.
The writing style is wrapped around a degree of repetition. This cadence fits with the hunter mentality manifesting in the many layers of comparative lifestyle choices and personalities.
The story offers perspectives on the cost of survival in societies where what is considered natural is largely man made. Emotions are suppressed, creatures trained, vegetation managed. Ripples caused by any deviation from the accepted balance have consequences that are rarely anticipated.
Character development brings to the fore how little we know even those we are close to, and how new experiences can bring about unanticipated transformations. True nature is shown to be as barbaric as it is beautiful. This is a thought provoking and alluring read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books.