D’Arbaud, Jouse. “The Beast, and Other Tales”, translated from the Provencal by Joyce Zonana, Northwestern University Press, 2020.
(Note*— I use the spelling of gardian as it appears in the text and the Beast is capitalized here as a name would be.)
Jóusè d’Arbaud’s 1926 haunting parable is set during the fifteenth century in the Camargue delta, a large, desolate and lonely area where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean. The book is made up of four stories about solitude and loneliness. In “The Beast of Vacares”, Jaume Roubaud (the gardian), the narrator is a bull herder who comes upon a half man, half-goat, a creature that is starving. Even though he is terrified, he is drawn to the Beast and learns that it is dying. The Beast had once lived a wonderful life and still has power over the animals around him. The gardian is both filled with fear and pity and he cannot understand what the Beast has gone through and fears that he will be labeled as a heretic. After all how does one explain meeting a beast? The gardian decides to write everything down in his journal hoping that one day others will understand. We wonder if the beast is merely in his imagination, an illusion that has come out of his feelings of isolation. The Beast claims to be truth yet what does that truth hold for the gardian?
The story is a fantasy yet it is filled with the activities that the gardian participated in daily as well as serving as a nature guide to the region. As he encounters the Beast, the gardian must deal with ideas that are at odds with what he thought to be the correct way. He has a breakdown both mentally and physically and he finds himself attracted and disgusted by the Beast. He trusts and distrusts the Beast just as he does himself and we realize that the Beast is the “other” causing him to doubt who he thought he was. He is transformed by the meeting but the result comes too late for the gardian (a story that should be familiar to so many of us).
In “The Beast” and in the three other stories, the theme that humans think that they dominate nature is evident. In “The Caraco”, a lone gardian brings in a female from another community, one that is disliked by the populace of his own and he finds love with her. In “Peire Guilhem’s Remorse”, we read about the bullring and what happens there as we feel sympathetic toward the horse. In “The Longline”, gardians who ignore nature and lay claim to a fishing-hole.
I do not believe I have ever read anything translated from the Provençal, an ancient language yet I relish the translation and Joyce Zonana’s ability to not only share the story in beautiful English but to also capture emotions while describing a time and place that are gone. For anyone who loves literature that makes you think, this is a book to be loved and reread often.