Si le soleil ne revenait pas* is about a tiny village high up in the Alps. The story is set between October and April, a time when the village doesn’t get any sun because of the steep mountain walls. The villagers are used to this and go about their winter activities without too much fuss. They miss the sunshine but know this period of their lives is something that will pass, as it has every year before.
Until one of the village elders, who is also a healer, predicts that this year the sun won’t come back. Something has changed in the movement of the stars and the sun will no longer be on their side of the earth. Not surprisingly, this prediction has a strong effect on the village and as the winter deepens they each begin to react.
Ramuz does a lot with man vs. nature in all of his writing but this novel takes that idea to an absolute extreme by focusing on a group of people who are already used to the idea that the sun will abandon them for a certain amount of time each year and then asking them to accept its eventual extinction. I think had he tried to set the novel down on the lake for example, the psychology of the villagers would have been completely different. Much more opposition to the idea, instead of this consuming fear.
One of the things I enjoy with Ramuz is his character sketches – with just a few lines he’s able to create this crystal clear picture of a variety of different people. The cast of characters in Si le soleil ne revenait pas is very rich. From old Anzévui, seated in front of his hearth with his long, scraggly beard and his book of numbers to young newlywed Isabelle with her yearning for summer and the chance to feel the sun on her skin. And I particularly loved how he rendered Arlettaz, a father literally losing his mind with grief over the loss of his daughter. The book simply overflows with side stories about the villagers and their lives.
And I know I’ve said this before, but Ramuz is a master of description. Here are just two of my favorite lines – taken from a scene when Métrailler goes to visit Anzévui (the healer) after the death of his father:
Les plantes étaient attachées par leurs racines aux poutres et pendaient, la tête en bas, comme des chauves-souris.
[The plants were attached by their roots to the ceiling beams and hung, head down, like bats.]
La flamme du feu était sur sa figure et ensuite n’y était plus; alors il y avait de l’ombre autour de ses yeux comme il y a de l’eau dans les creux d’une pierre.
[The flame from the fire was on his face and then it was gone; shadows appeared around his eyes like water in the cracks of a stone.]
These short descriptions are interspersed between a terse conversation (Métrailler thinks Anzévui had something to do with the death of his father) and I found the mention of bats, fire, shadows and stone just heightened the darkness of the moment. It was very effective.
I’m hoping hoping hoping that I’ll get a chance to translate this novel as well at some point. At the moment I’m concentrating on a few short stories and a different novel. But every time I pick Ramuz up I can’t believe that so little of his work ever really made it into English. So strange how these things turn out.
*The title can be translated literally as If the sun was never coming back but I think this is a bit clunky in English..the words soleil and revenait rhyme in French so it sounds much better, more fluid. Finding an appropriate English title would be tricky.