By Neal Baker
At the midpoint of Henri Bosco’s 1948 novel Malicroix, translated in English by Joyce Zonana, Martial Mégremut lies feverish in his bed and tries to recount a series of peculiar events during several days of sickness. His memory has more space than it has substance, however, and he admits that “my imagination may unwittingly have invented lights and shadows to fill the unavoidable gaps” (168). This moment of awareness about the nature of his delirium communicates something really essential about the quality of the novel itself. In its predominantly natural and realistic world, fantasy comes in Malicroix not quite as hallucination but as imprecision. The novel casts its characters, its settings, and its events in obscurity, and imagination—or maybe suspicion—fills in the blind spots. Sometimes the reverie is on the part of the reader, but more often they spring forth from the narration. Well beyond his sick bed, Martial’s inventions out of light and shadow play a key part in the development of the peculiar gothic atmosphere of the novel, one which tends to keep the adversarial forces at arm’s length—far enough to steer away from true horror, but close enough to inspire a turbulent psychological drama.
To an English-speaking audience, the novel’s author is a bit of an obscure figure himself. Bosco wrote until his death in 1976, but most of his work remains untranslated or long out of print in English. His writing often exhibits a preoccupation with the natural world that shows through in the dark wilderness against which the intrigue of Malicroix is set. The novel’s conflict springs from the passing of Cornélius de Malicroix, Martial’s hermitic uncle who leaves to his nephew a small residence on an untamed island on the Rhône. This lonely inheritance comes under the condition that Martial confine himself to this small piece of land for three months, the only other human inhabitant being a shepherd named Balandran who formerly served Cornélius. From the moment of his arrival, Martial struggles for insight into the nature of his new surroundings. “Here the words, the sounds, the silences, even the objects, spoke a language of their own, to which I had no access” (20). When met with Balandran’s reticence, Martial can’t help but probe the silence for secrets. The notary who handles his uncle’s will seems to have ulterior motives beneath his pompous facade. The very terrain of the Camargue, this remote region so unfamiliar to Martial, seems to hide things from him and confound his path. And the story behind his late uncle’s life and death lies deep in mystery—perhaps for a good reason.
Several distinct shades of this uncertainty make up Bosco’s moody palette. Malicroix is a study in the subtle difference between what one does not know and what one cannot know. The first might create suspense: the sound of somebody approaching the door. The other might unsettle reality: the footsteps fade away…were they ever really there? These are the means by which Bosco manages the reader’s curiosity, wonder, and fear. Cousin to the unknown and the unknowable is the withheld. With every piece of information Martial gains about his uncle and the reasons for his strange posthumous requests, something is kept from him to be revealed at a later date. The truth is always right under his nose, but it has been made that he cannot access it on his own.
All these unknowns move all kinds of rumination in Martial, a ponderous fellow whose thoughts insist on identifying the nature of things and who as narrator leads the reader along through his swirling notions. A solitary thinker in this place with its many elusive ideas, he tries to perceive meaning in his world, though his observations are full of more fantasy than fact. And yet he tells them with utter conviction, his elaborate daydreams augmenting the physical reality. Once begun, Martial’s flights of fancy occupy pages after pages, and in these mental excursions Bosco exhibits the fullest extent of his lyricism. Without a doubt the most prominent stylistic feature of Malicroix is the pace of these extended passages in which Bosco invites the reader to luxuriate in the folds of his elaborate prose. Whether what such passages achieve is luxury or tedium might be a matter of taste, but they excel at demonstrating the imagination that Martial projects onto everything around him.
Zonana’s imagination as a translator is also on display in these descriptive sections more than anywhere else in the text. Martial listens as a storm rages outside the walls of his little house, and Zonana expertly wrangles one awestruck, terrified metaphor after another. With a seemingly endless vocabulary she brings to life descriptions of the roaring Rhône river or the comforting and profound presence of the fire in the fireplace. These are moments when English itself, having the greater lexicon, becomes the translator’s most useful tool should they know how to use it.
Most of these magnificent descriptions demonstrate a particular fixation on the elemental. Perhaps for Martial it is a reaction to the unfamiliar—an attempt to find the unchanging center in the earth, water, fire, and wind. Issuing from the same sense of the fundamental is an attentiveness on Bosco’s part to the names of things, and in that, another curious aspect of the translation. In several otherwise-fluent passages, one word in particular sticks; redoubtable, spelled the same in both languages and repeated as a part of many descriptions throughout the book, seems an odd choice in English where it would not have stuck out in French. And so the English reader has an exaggerated moment of clarity at the revelation that Cornélius de Malicroix’s island is named La Redousse, or The Redoubt.
Even in the family name (and the title of the book) there is a hidden message. The name Malicroix represents the primacy of blood, specifically the “three drops of Malicroix blood…gliding through the Mégremut blood without mingling” (107). It’s a part of Martial that he’s trying to find while on the island, and it’s also a
double name, whose syllables evoked opposed meanings (which I disentangled poorly) and conjured two images: the one, at the outset, of sin—mal, evil, ill—and at the other, at the end, expiatory and redemptive—croix, faith, belief. (100)
The significance of names feeds into the novel’s underlying conflicts, and it also requires some additional research on the part of the Anglophone reader. Those names that do not receive attention from the narrative or extra help from Zonana—what could they mean? Perhaps that’s a part of the mystery. In fact, the text implicates the reader from the outset. Before the story begins, Bosco alludes to a number of pages omitted from the novel and reserved for that moment when “someone truly qualified” might gain access. And so Malicroix puzzles and conceals even after it is closed.
Bosco, Henri. Malicroix. Translated by Joyce Zonana. New York Review of Books, 2020.
Neal Baker lives in Austin, Texas and translates from French. He graduated from Oberlin College in 2020 with a major in Comparative Literature and French, and a concentration in literary translation with a focus on comics and film.