Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Echoes of the past

Everybody who knows me should be aware that I’m especially attracted to history. Not only large-scale History with a capital H, such as the true story of the Bible, or the rise and fall of the Roman empire, but small-time stuff such as legends and anecdotes (along with a few rare facts) about my ancestors. Often, I’m so attracted by the past that I end up tackling history that doesn’t really concern me, such as Christine’s genealogy or olden times in the Royans (my adopted homeplace).

Yesterday morning, I phoned up Madeleine because I’m still obsessed (the word is not too strong) by the question of why there seem to be several legendary castles floating around in the air, as it were, above the neighboring medieval village of Pont-en-Royans... in the style of the celebrated celestial city of Jerusalem, which is thought of as hovering above the real-world place. To account for various references to alleged castles in the vicinity of Pont-en-Royans, I’m constructing a theory (to put it pompously) that involves no less than six or seven former local entities that might have been designated, rightly or wrongly, as castles (including those I mentioned in a previous message on this topic).

When I phoned Madeleine, she was preparing a traditional New Year’s Day contact with her neighbors Bernadette and Dédé (same given name as Madeleine’s own husband), who live on the opposite side of the Bourne. As a consequence of my phone call, I was promptly invited. Social events of this kind, among old-timers, are both simple and rapid, but they often provide me with rare opportunities of getting the lowdown on various happenings, past and present, in the commune. And these facts, too, are local history of a special kind...

For example, I didn’t know until yesterday that the father of a dynamic village personality lost his life many years ago in a terrible fashion. As a foreman in the unique local factory, which manufactured electrical devices, he had developed a bad relationship with a hot-tempered worker. One day, after a violent discussion in the factory, the worker picked up his foreman and dumped him into a bath of acid, where he was promptly dissolved into Eternity. How’s that for local history?

Madeleine also told me a gentler but spicy tale concerning a traditional phenomenon: marriages (arranged through agencies, if I understand correctly) between local rural gentlemen and ladies from the French West Indies. Sometimes, such a union can be highly successful, giving rise to a large family whose members behave as if their ancestors had lived here on the edge of the French Alps since the dawn of time. (After all, for their paternal ancestors, this is more or less true.) But there have been a certain number of notorious cases in which arranged marriages of this kind simply did not work out, since it was an impossible leap for the female partner to abandon the balmy atmosphere of the Antilles and merge into her husband’s damp and cold cow-dung environment, which was a little like basic poverty without the sunshine and the sea. If the worst came to the worst, the lady might even decide that it would surely be preferable for her to return to her distant birthplace. In the eyes of her husband, this was not necessarily an acceptable hypothesis, since he had—as it were—gone to the trouble of acquiring his exotic spouse (a money-based process that might be likened vaguely to the purchase of a valuable farm animal for breeding purpose), and he was determined to prevent her from escaping from the farm compound. Consequently, for a woman in this predicament, escaping necessitated imagination and inventiveness...

In the case of fair-haired Gaston and dark-skinned Flora (those names are fictitious, whereas the real people once existed), their union was fortunately a catastrophe... where the unexpected adverb “fortunately” simply indicates that they had not succeeded in producing offspring, whose presence would have surely complicated Flora’s escape. Gaston was not unduly disturbed when Flora announced that she would be receiving the visit of family friends from Guadeloupe, who were keen on viewing the picturesque setting in which she was now living. Indeed, a car drew up at Gaston’s farm, and several compatriots of Flora (in fact, Parisians) got out, hugged her as if they were old friends, and visited the miserable house and muddy yards. Gaston was surprised that they didn’t stay for long, pretexting that they had other friends in the region whom they wished to see. Now, the rest of this trivial tale is a transcription of Gaston’s shocked account of the ensuing events...

Five minutes after the departure of the West Indians, Gaston heard a vehicle drawing up at the farm. Flora told her husband that her friends had surely forgotten something, and she dashed off to see them. Yes, they had indeed forgotten a key element: Flora herself! Gaston never saw his West Indian wife again. And the real Gaston himself is now dead and gone.

Funnily enough, Madeleine sees me as a goldmine of information about the history of her birthplace. One future day, when I evoke the tale of Flora’s escape from Gaston, Madeleine is going to wonder out loud how I could have ever learnt so many precious stories about her region. She forgets that much of my old-time data comes from Madeleine herself, and the written material she gives me. She thinks that I’m the historical voice of the commune. In fact, I’m merely the echo.

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