JULY 5, 2019
AT PARIS’S MUSEUM OF HUNTING AND NATURE, the trophy room stars an animatronic albino boar whose lips tremble around a gnarly set of teeth and whose fluttering white eyelashes would be more at home at the Met’s Camp-themed gala than in a hunting lodge. Nothing is flea bitten or dusty, and the entire museum is founded on an immaculately design-conscious and whimsical reshuffling of centuries of French tradition. Tools of hunting like powder horns and rifle handles are mounted and arranged with a focus on their style and materials rather than their periods or uses. The museum’s reboot of antiquated motifs asks some of the questions that Tristan, the protagonist of Agnès Desarthe’s Hunting Party, might ask — philosophical questions about man’s relationship to nature. But the museum might leave much of the rest of the cast of the novel — provincial folks, folks who still hunt — with some different questions: Where did tradition go? How can culture in flux be tolerated?
Tristan is a quiet, cerebral man who is drawn into conversation with a quiet, cerebral rabbit. Their conversation, mostly debating the differences between animal and man, weaves itself throughout the entire narrative, but Desarthe sets up a deadlock early on. The rabbit speaks first and opens the book with a fallacy — he insists that he wants to train himself to live more like a human, by suppressing speed, impulse, and instinct in favor of safety and longevity. No sooner does he state his desire to “die a natural death” than he goes bounding out of the bushes and meets, serendipitously, a bullet Tristan has aimed reluctantly and at random, under pressure from his fellow hunters. No sooner does the rabbit say he wants, like humans, the time to grow old and “to know love and the infinite luxury of losing it,” than we discover the reason why Tristan is on this hunting expedition to begin with: his wife Emma wants to fit in with the people of their adopted village. The two Parisians met abroad in London and are suspect newcomers in this rural village where they have come to take up residence in an inherited cottage. Emma is not interested in fitting in for the sake of it, but because she believes, as she tells Tristan, that their love will not survive in isolation. She will not allow time or circumstance to let love die the “natural death” that the rabbit so envies. As the story unfolds, we find that humans are reckless; the characters that surround Tristan contemplate torture, murder, suicide, even the drowning of an infant. Even Tristan’s mother, who once lived fast and died slowly of AIDS, is not able to achieve that “relief that comes with maturity” the rabbit craves: her last words are interrupted — “You’re going to laugh, but…” — and she dies unprepared.
And though the rabbit’s assumptions about humans are rapidly debunked, he is still talking to the right person: Tristan is an introspective, cautious man in a world of rabbit-quick peers. Desarthe’s spare language, elegantly translated from the French by Christiana Hills, seamlessly weaves their voices together, opening up the human subjectivity of the novel. Though the rabbit’s omnipresent and supernatural ability to communicate heralds massive natural chaos, it also slows the pace of the story, bringing Tristan into dialogue with his past and with the natural world that hums around him in the forest. He is drawn, literally, into a burrow in the ground, when his hunting companion Dumestre stumbles and injures himself in a hidden mineshaft. Left behind by their two other hunting companions, Tristan cares for Dumestre as a great storm sets in on them. He creates a space of comfort for the other man, feeding him, digging out another hole for warmth, even helping the immobilized man urinate, at great psychological discomfort to himself. Furthermore, he hunkers down and tells stories, confides and comforts as he did with his ill mother — he describes their life together as a “burrow.” But his companion is as unpredictable as the storm around them. Dumestre has exaggerated his injuries, and Tristan finds himself locked in brutal physical contact within their close quarters. When Dumestre springs on him, Tristan is taken off guard: “Is the earth collapsing? In the darkness of the cave a warm, compact mass cuts off his breath, crushes his ribs. […] The mass crashes down on him once more. It flattens him. It’s an animal, a bear, a monster.” He cannot tell whether he is fighting another man, an animal, or the land itself, they feel like one in the same.
In her ability to paint the natural world as a key actor in her story, allowing human interactions and reactions to meld with environmental ones, Desarthe takes up the mantle of Jean Giono, an earlier French writer who depicted rural life in France. In his 1927 novel Hill, recently printed in a new translation by Paul Eprile because of renewed interest in ecological texts, the earth exhibits rage sparked by careless stewardship of nature. Details are animistic, the narrator roves, and the more the characters are able to perceive and to grant autonomy to the natural world, the safer they are from its vengeful, inscrutable forces. Characters in Giono’s book fight fire; in Desarthe’s, water. About the hurricane that he weathers, Tristan thinks: “Anger, rage. Everything is possible: the earth can open up, it can shake, cave in, swallow things. It’s like a monster, after sleeping under the earth’s crust for millenia.” And Tristan is not the only one who has these acute sensitivities to nature coming undone. Right before the hurricane begins, one of the hunters, Farnèse, thinks “something is missing from the scenery. A piece is missing. […] A pillar without which the world would collapse. […] The problem is song. No birdsong. No chattering, no chirping, no cawing. Reassured to have discovered it, but worried by his discovery.” Desarthe, like Giono, takes great care in depicting those unsettling lacunae in the natural world.
Unlike Giono, though, who came home shell-shocked from World War I and spent his career trying to strip his work of any specific reference to the modern world, Desarthe imbues her story with political tensions. It is not a figment of Emma’s imagination that she and Tristan don’t fit in — the villagers have noticed that they don’t have jobs and are vexed by it, even more so because they cannot even refer to school enrollment forms because the couple has no children. The creative urbanites are not a part of the fabric of the village, or even its ecosystem of gossip. When Dumestre confides his own story of divorce and difficulty, even in spite of his vulnerable position huddled naked beneath the ground, he fumes over times he has seen Tristan shopping for groceries. It is not just that the man does the shopping for his wife, “an artiste,” as Dumestre belittlingly calls her, but that Tristan does not understand this as an affront, as a danger to the order of things as it is for Dumestre. The grocery cart does not “mean something to him.”
Masculinity is at the forefront of this book, not just in the personal moments where Tristan feels like he must bring home a trophy, or where the other hunters make endless jokes about premature ejaculation, but in the more macro sense that it has been at the forefront of other contemporary European novels. In the recent British novel Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss depicts Britons of different classes who try to coexist in an Iron Age reenactment village, clashing as they use anachronism to justify violence and misogyny. The work is a spiritual cousin to Hunting Party in so much as it examines chauvinism and isolationism disguised as tradition, and in that each possesses a sensitive character who is forcibly sent out to experiment with “ancestral living.” Ruins of human past crop up among wild nature — Farnèse saves his friend from the floodwaters of the burst river and leaves him on a Gallo-Roman tower. When Tristan asks Emma about the book she is writing, “You’re sure the woman has to be cut open and burned alive?” implying human sacrifice; later, when he compares her to “ancient people […] with an innate sense of savagery,” we know that one of his struggles is to separate sensitivity to nature from adulation of the brutal human past. And if Moss’s book is often called a Brexit parable, then Desarthe’s book looks obliquely at France’s own populism — her characters are the sort who would be easy to envision trading in their game bags for yellow vests. The hunt is for identity rather than for game.
But even apart from contemporary EU implications, the French literary tradition has a long history of rural folk sabotaging urbanites who move to the countryside in search of the “authentic.” While in Marcel Pagnol’s canonical Jean de Florette, the provincial farmers hide the source of the spring from their city-transplant neighbor, in Hunting Party the sabotage is less practical, more personal. The men of the group have tried to draw Tristan into the fray of the village not by lending him the wrong tools and teaching him the wrong things about hunting, but by destroying his personal life, by forcing him through the ringer of small-town myth. Dumestre confronts Tristan with the admission that he has had an affair with Emma, and in doing so proclaims he has transformed her into an archetype of woman he understands (a cheating type is more familiar to him than an artist type). Farnèse has left the men alone together in the woods to duke it out as punishment, as random, unrelated revenge for his own grief, and as payback for the fact that Emma chose Dumestre for her affair.
But as the rabbit told us at the outset, the book is about love most of all, and Tristan, without the expected jealousy, the protective reaction, simply resists the characterizations that Dumestre and Farnèse pile onto Emma. He says, “All that you and others see is the river, the polluted current, the raging waters, but only I know how to go back to the source, bathe in it, because she is my wife.” With these words, he refuses to jump into the reckless, misogynistic struggles of the village, but leans on nature to embody a generous, replenishing view of love. The rabbit says, “[T]he word ‘transcendence’ is as long as a day without wild thyme.” But as Tristan explains the daunting abstraction, it’s “[b]elieving you’re finished, kaput, at your limit, and weeping in the face of the rising sun because of its beauty. Trying to reproduce this feeling, to summarize it. Being in love.”
In this novel, Desarthe does a fine job reproducing the feeling. And if she were to summarize her brand of transcendence, it might look like a day spent in a patch of wild thyme — pondering it, breathing it in, resolving some differences, having a conversation about how long a day feels to a single sprig.