BOOK REVIEW / Love and death on the forest floor: 'Days of Anger ' - Sylvie Germain; Tr. Christine Donougher: Dedalus, 8.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
FRENCH magic realism? Sounds awful, doesn't it? But Sylvie Germain is much more remarkable than tags such as these might make her sound (she could hardly be less). Her first novel, The Book of Nights, was a tremendous success in France, and won the Scott-Moncrieff Prize for translations when it was published in Britain last year. Now Days of Anger has arrived in English, too, having won the Prix Femina and many critical accolades, all of them deserved.

It is a story with the force of folklore. One misty morning a cunning woodsman witnesses a murder: the landlord is killing his beautiful wife in a passionate frenzy - half an earnest entreaty that she come home, and half a jealous fit. The woodsman shouts the murderer's name across the river and the forest, and for the landlord it is the voice of Judgment Day. He willingly allows himself to be blackmailed: he hands over his woods and his daughter, and abandons himself to grief and self-loathing.

The woodsman, meanwhile, has taken care of the corpse - but not before he has fallen wholeheartedly in love with it. He gazes at the lovely face of the slain woman, and the dramatic coincidence of beauty and blood overturns his wits. His life becomes a mad search for a repeat performance, and eventually he succeeds in contriving one by devoting himself to the corpse's granddaughter, Camille. Of course, it ends in tears. His attempts to keep this perfect beauty caged are doomed the moment her own passionate desires begin to stir. Nemesis arrives in the form of a cowherd, one of the old man's long- rejected grandchildren. His nightly tumbles with Camille precipitate an ending that is dreadful, grand and exactly what is needed.

This is only the central thrust: Days of Anger pitches the violent madness of the woodsman against the mystical insanity of an old woman in the neighbouring village, whose dotty faith in the Virgin Mary is made manifest in the enormously fecund life of her huge daughter, who marries the woodsman's son and produces nine extraordinary children, one of whom will return to haunt the closing pages. The woodsman's madness leads him to confuse mouth with wound, word with cry and saliva with blood; the old woman's madness makes her mistake mouth for smile, word for prayer and saliva for tears. The place where the two forms of madness meet is in the deep forest, and the story, which in truth feels like the warring of abstract forces only briefly made flesh, plays itself out on this timeless, dark green stage.

It is all conducted in a vigorous lyrical manner, which in short bursts might seem extravagant, but which brings an intoxicating poetry to the harsh events unfolding on the forest floor. Here, for instance, is the moment when the landlord, standing aghast over the fallen body of his wife, hears the fateful cry:

'He stood stock still, riveted to the bank by the sound of his name called out from across the river - as though he had just been struck in the back by the echo of his murderous deed resounding through the valley. As though the vast muster of floating logs stamped with his initial had started chanting in unison the name of their owner. As though all this timber that made him rich had proclaimed his name. As though all his trees had come down from the Morvan heights to surprise him at the moment of his crime and to denounce him by name to the entire valley. The name of an assassin. Like a blind man, he obeyed the orders issued by this person who had appeared from who knows where - from the river, from among the logs of beech and oak, like some obscure water spirit or sylvan daemon, a terrifying genius born of the very crime that he had committed - a cruel and ruthless genius that would never let him go, that gripped his conscience like the jaws of a dog holding its prey by the neck. With a kind of smile.'

Probably the single most striking feature of the book is this sense of pagan forces swarming through human life. The characters are presented as archetypes of various emotions: the woodsman is driven by anger, the landlord swayed by guilt, the old woman by faith, her daughter by hunger. Camille inherits the same wild life-force (and the same 'serpent eyes') that propelled her murdered grandmother to her doom. The woodcutter brothers have symbolic names - Ferdinand the Strong, Martin the Sparing, Blaise the Ugly; and when one of them, Simon the Hothead, falls into a fury in the end, he slaughters his favourite ox and drapes the bloody carcass over his head, for all the world as if he were sacrificing it to Zeus.

One wouldn't have thought this sort of thing could be anything but ludicrous (and while we're about it, the love-death motif is pretty well-worn), but Germain brings a terrific zestful confidence to bear on the task. The recovery of the idea that human bodies are simply the vessels of a spiritual struggle gives the characters a remote epic dimension that is startling, in this day and age. Germain is able to revel in both the physical tumult of her peasant community and the ripples of transcendence that fly through the woods.

The translator for some reason has a deadly weakness for the pluperfect. Everything had happened - Camille had gone into the room, had watched her father, had this, had that. By about halfway, this reader had had it up to here with had. But even this doesn't put the brakes on the novel's lush immediacy. Days of Anger reads like Thomas Hardy rewritten by some hectic and spirited surrealist, and it plants in its remote rural glades an almost medieval vitality.

Days of Anger is published alongside The Weeping Woman of Prague, an equally distinctive sequence of 12 vignettes in which a mysterious and inconsolable figure appears in various parts of the city. It is deliberately modernist: the woman infiltrates not just the city, but also the text ('She entered the pages of the book as a vagrant steals into an empty house, or a deserted garden') and is almost certainly a homage to Kafka. Yet the figure of this bereft woman develops into a memorable symbol: her sudden appearances - on a bridge, in a square, in a room - haunt the book like history, moved to tears.

It is important that the figure is a woman, but Germain is not by any stretch a writer committed only to the description of a specifically feminine experience. Not the least of her accomplishments is the assurance with which she surpasses mere sociology: though eloquent on the subject of female desire, she is equally engaged by the reckless passions of these rough men. She has big fish to fry; and in Days of Anger she leaves them on the flame until they are burning hot and golden.