Posts Tagged ‘year of the drought’

Year of the Drought

September 7, 2017

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.