Year of the Drought

The Year of the Drought, in Roland Buti’s novel (now translated by Charlotte Mandell, his first to appear in English), is 1976. Auguste, or Gus, is thirteen years old – only a few years older than I would have been that year – and living on a farm with his mother, father and older sister, Lea. His father has invested in hundreds of chickens which he plans to fatten and sell but the intense heat is causing an ever-increasing mortality rate. The real threat to the family, however, arrives in the form of Gus’ mother’s friend, Cecile. The oppressive weather, and Buti’s decision to end each chapter not so much with a cliff-hanger but with a moment of heightened emotion, creates a sense of impending doom unusual for a coming-of-age novel.

Gus, like any other thirteen-year-old, lives much of his life in his imagination; he has, for example, his own explanation for the heatwave:

“I myself was of the opinion that an asteroid had fallen somewhere in the area, a huge heavenly body composed of an unknown metal, and giving off toxic vapours.”

He longs for something out of the ordinary to happen:

“In the hope that something astounding might happen to me, I had acquired the habit of remaining still for very long periods of time… But nothing changed… No mysterious stranger, having floated done from the sky in a basket after an immense voyage through space and time, was ever threading his way towards us through the woods.”

When a stranger does arrive she is both ordinary and extraordinary: a woman who works in the Post Office yet seems to possess a sophistication and glamour absent in the countryside. She initially charms Gus, when she meets him by the roadside, with her enthusiasm for his drawing, his dove (which he is caring for while its tail feathers regrow) and even the farm horse, Bagatelle’s, defecation.

“Looking straight into my eyes she gave me a big, loud, slow kiss on each cheek. I inhaled her breath. It smelled of honey and liquorice.”

Soon Cecile moves in and slowly we realise that her relationship with Gus’ mother is more than friendship, as Buti subtly reveals:

“As she rose, she deliberately brushed against Cecile’s arm, slowing down to prolong the contact.”

Later, Gus will discover that it is his father sleeping in the spare room, and, later still, he spots his mother and Cecile at a stream where he has gone with his friend Maddy to cool off:

“Satisfied they were alone, their movements became freer and more relaxed. Cecile was the first to take off her dress, drawing it over her head in a single, fluid motion that seemed to make it magically disappear.”

The novel may seem to explore two disparate themes: one of love outside of the social conventions of the time, the other of the mechanisation of farming which is shown to be still at the mercy of the elements. Both are united, though, by the loss of control felt by Gus’ father, and the characters in general:

“It must have seemed to Dad that a cosmic shift in the natural order had taken place… One world, the lower one, that you hoped to master through work, through daily care of your animals and plants, that you could almost understand because it was almost human, and part of a universe subject to our human will – this world had yielded to another, different kind of nature, lofty distant, often incomprehensible, yet always imposing itself on us.”

Neither the drought nor his wife’s love can be controlled. Similarly, his wife cannot control her passion. The heat comes to represent that passion – oppressive, unspoken – which is expressed when they spend time together by the stream, an Edenic, out of the world moment. This is echoed in a sexual encounter Gus has with Maddy shortly after when together they sneak into the town reservoir. (There are many other examples of this, from Bagatelle’s refusal to move from a glade where he has gone to die to Rudy, a farm labourer with Down’s syndrome’s belief that every woman who visits the farm is the ‘one’).

Year of the Drought is a novel of many vivid scenes (clearing out the dead chickens will be hard to forget) which Buti manages to imbue with a power beyond his words. He takes an ordinary family and places them under extraordinary stresses, the father in particular taking on almost tragic hero proportions. An English language debut that is well worth seeking out.


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12 Responses to “Year of the Drought”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    Very interesting review, Grant. I like that the weather parallels the themes in the book. I will add this one to the ever growing TBR list.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds very good, and Mandell is a talented translator. Why set it in 1976 do you think? I suppose it does avoid having to write about what Gus is up to on Instagram and Snapchat which otherwise might reduce the sense of the whole thing as a pressure cooker.

    • 1streading Says:

      There was a heatwave in Europe in 1976 and, although I can’t find Buti’s date of birth, having seen him it’s certainly the case that some of the novel is autobiographical.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    Oh, this does sound good. I’m intrigued by the 1976 setting: I know there was a heatwave in the UK; was there one on the continent too?

  4. banff1972 Says:

    Interesting–hadn’t even heard of this. I was in Switzerland that summer–though not old enough to remember how hot it was. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  5. Year of the Drought by Roland Buti | Says:

    […] Thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for recommending this book to me.  Please stop by his blog and read his wonderful review of this novel: […]

  6. “Once Fertile Lands”: Roland Buti’s Year of the Drought | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau Says:

    […] Grant at 1st Reading alerted me to this book. Melissa at Bookbinder’s Daughter has reviewed it too. They both liked it more than I did and you should read them for proper reviews rather than the memoir manqué. […]

  7. Year of the Drought by Roland Buti | Winstonsdad's Blog Says:

    […] saw a few reviews around the web a few weeks ago of this book.One from Melissa  and another from Grant it sounded like a book I would like.So I went and brought a copy for myself. It won the Swiss […]

  8. Seven Books of Summer | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Year of the Drought by Roland Buti, translated by Charlotte Mandell […]

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