I am trying a kind of double review here. I have recently joined a French book club to accelerate my French learning. Our second book is L’orangeraie by Larry Tremblay. I had already read this short novel in English, The Orange Grove in the Peirene edition.
Two things struck me as I read the French version: the simplicity of the language, with few adjectives. The main characters in the first part are twins of 9 years old. They live simply in the desert, and the language reflects their lives.
The second observation was the very visual aspects of the novel: the orange grove in the desert; the kite dancing free in the mountain wind, the dust from the jeep that brings Soulayed to the family, with his machine gun, loquacity and menace. Larry Tremblay is a theatre director as well as an author and he works in Canada.
L’orangeraie / The Orange Grove
This novella begins in the parched desert landscape of an unnamed country in the shadow of mountains. A family makes a living from the orange grove, despite the harshness of the climate. Then the grandparents’ house is bombed from over the mountains, and the way is open for revenge and the gradual destruction of the survivors.
The novel is concerned with the choices that war, hate, revenge require of ordinary people. And with the destruction to human bonds brought by action in pursuit of these. Soulayed arrives to instruct Zahed to choose one of his twin sons to revenge the deaths of his parents with a suicide mission.
The father chooses Amed, not wishing to send his other, sick son to an early death. Perhaps the choice of his son with a terminal illness would have been a lesser sacrifice. His wife Tamara does not agree and persuades Amed to swap with Aziz.
The reader is confronted by many questions. How can parents choose between the deaths of their children? How can the death of either twin make up for the bombing of their grandparents? How can the seducer, Soulayed, persuade Zahed and the twins that the suicide mission is the right response? What will be achieved by more killing?
In the second section action has suddenly switched to Canada where the grownup Aziz (formerly Amed) is studying acting. The director Michael tries to find the right way to end a play about war. He struggling to find the ending that will reflect something of the reality of the experience of violence and of Amed/Aziz’s experiences in particular.
He [Michael] was asking himself the same questions about evil. It was too easy to accuse those who committed war crimes of being assassins or wild beasts. Especially when those who judged them lived far from the circumstances that had provoked the conflicts, whose origins were lost in the vortex of history. What would he have done in a comparable situation? Would he, like millions of other men, have been capable of fighting for an idea, a scrap of earth, a border, or even oil? Would he, too, have been conditioned to kill innocents, women and children? Or would he have had the courage, even if it meant risking his own life, to refuse the order to shoot down defenceless people in a burst of gunfire? (120)
Michael is asking the questions that those of us who live far from conflict must consider. He wants Amed/Aziz to play the part of a child who must justify a soldier’s decision to shoot him or not. The young man comes to his own decision about the ending, addressing the audience directly.
‘No, you don’t need to have a reason or even to have right on your side to do what you think you must do. Don’t look elsewhere for what is already within you. Who am I to think in your place? My clothes are dirty and torn, and my heart is shattered like a pebble. I cry tears that tear at my face. But as you can hear, my voice is calm. Better still, I have a peaceful voice. I am speaking to you in a voice that is seven years old, nine years old, twenty years old, a thousand years old. Do you hear me?’ (138)
L’orangeraie by Larry Tremblay (2013) La Table Ronde. 143 pp
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (2015) Peirene Press. 138pp. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman