A solitary man is ambling down a country road in pre-WWII France. He hails a bus and boards. Not long afterwards, a woman asks to be let off. It’s market day and she is laden with baskets and has items tied to the top of the bus. On a whim he jumps off to help her with her cargo, and so begins this wonderfully paced and elegantly written novel.
Jean, the man on the road, has recently been released from prison, after serving five years for murdering a man over a debt. Paul Theroux’s introduction to this edition (part of the New York Review Books Classics Series) was spoilerific, so I knew that the woman from the bus, the widow Couderc, would ultimately have her skull smashed in by Jean. Strangely that didn’t detract from the book at all, the tension and the uneasy feeling of dread permeating this fecund spring countryside was just as potent. I was drawn deeper and deeper into the everyday lives of these people and into Jean’s tortured mind. At times he was happier than he could ever remember being; the rhythms of a pastoral life suit him. The beauty and the order that is all around calms him somewhat, but he is too unsettled. He feels he is destined to repeat his most heinous act and his weak attempts to right himself are so unfocused as to be laughable. It’s preordained, you see. And in the end when the gendarmes come for him, he can only lie in the dooryard and weakly mewl “I’m tired…..I’m so tired!”.