Friday, 27 January 2017

Review: The Brethren by Robert Merle

When an author comes with the praise of being the Alexandre Dumas of the 20th century, a sworn fan of Alexandre Dumas is pretty much forced to pick up a book and start reading. Robert Merle is a French author and his Fortunes of France series tells the story of a Huguenot family from around 1550 to 1660. The first three parts have been translated in to English and the first of them is The Brethren.

The story is set in the the Périgord region and it is, in the mid-16th century, a dangerous place to life for a two men returning from war who hide their identity as Huguenots when they buy a farm and settle down in the region. Told from the perspective of one of their sons, Pierre de Siorac, we find out how the two men, who bind themselves in a legal bond of brotherhood, begin to earn their fortune. But the road to success is not easy: the weak king of France is persuaded to hunt down and kill all the Huguenots in the land and hunger and plague are a constant danger.

Unfortunately, the story moves along very slowly and it feels like an over-extended prologue to the 13 part series. The four-hundred page novel manages to tell us about the relatively uneventful childhoods of Pierre and his brothers and sisters and ends with Pierre and his half-brother leaving their home to study in a far-away city (this is not really a spoiler, since the author tells this very early in the novel). Certainly, the plague hits the local town once or twice and gypsies attack weak farms and even Pierre's home on one occasion. And there's a neighbour who is not very much their friend, but that doesn't really amount to any real competition or struggle. The rest of the time Pierre keeps ogling at women's breasts (as does his father), learning about sex with the daughter of the children's nurse and the family finds several good people to work on their farm one at a time.

What the story does well is historical detail. We find out a great deal about life in the period, religious beliefs, the marks of plague, milling, house building and the historical events pertaining to the struggles of Huguenots. There are some curious details that wrecked the sense of history to some degree: one was the fact that the Siorac sons are trained to fight with sabres. The weapon and the word sabre only entered the vocabulary of French and other European languages in the 17th century. For sure, the author (or translator?) may be referring to riding swords or other single-edged (even curved) swords of the 16th century, but the word used (at least in this English translation) confuses the point. Another problem for me was the dialogue: I never got the same feel of "history" and character as one does when reading Alexandre Dumas - and no one ever uttered phrases like "pardieu", "sang dieus" or "morbleu"!

Overall, I found this to be a difficult read: on one hand, the story moved very slowly and visited the same topics many times (the tedious breast ogling being one example), but, on the other, provided a lot of historical detail. What finally brought the experience down was the flat language. That might have been the result of translation and I may pick up the next part at some point to see if the storytelling style improves at all, but it will not be very soon.