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The Horseman on the Roof (1951)

by Jean Giono

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5321039,364 (3.74)30
This is the epic tale of the adventures and heroic self-sacrifice of Angelo, a fugitive Italian nobleman, who returns to his homeland through Provence, at the height of the cholera epidemic. This story is soon to be released on film.
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Showing 5 of 5
[Le Hussard sur le Toit] - Jean Giono (The Horseman on the roof)
Temperatures in France this summer have reached nearly 40 degrees a handful of times in my area and it was during one of these periods that I became engrossed in Jean Gionos book, which features a canicule (heatwave) during a pandemic for which there was no known cure. Reading with the shutters of the house all closed up to keep out the sun and with the contagion figures for covid -19 increasing at a frightening rate outside it was small wonder that I could so easily identify with the Horseman on the Roof (there were other reasons too which will become evident). Giono's book is set in the Provence area of France during the first wave of the cholera epidemic in the early 1830's and the hero: Angelo a captain in the Italian cavalry is riding through the area on some sort of mission, when he becomes caught up in the catastrophic effects of the pandemic.

Le Hussard sur le Toit was published in 1951 and is considered to be the last of Giono's grand oeuvres although he died in 1970. It was a long time in gestation and it feels like a book written over a long period of time. Giono was born and died in Manosque in the Alpes-de-Haut-Provence and the town features in his book, but it is the descriptions of the countryside suffering from the heatwave that give this book such a powerful presence. Like many of Giono's characters the author is slow to reveal their names and as the Horseman rides through the shinning white heat of the canicule we gradually learn more about him. He is in exile from Italy after an ill considered dual with an Austrian from the ruling class. Angelo believes he was fighting for liberty, but was forced to flee. He hears stories of a mystery disease in the land he is travelling through and then suddenly is confronted with the reality when he stumbles into a hamlet, which is covered under a cloud of flies and a murder of crows. He sees the body of a woman on the path outside the house and finds inside the houses dead bodies being eaten by birds and domestic animals, his horse panics and flees and is brought back to him by a young French doctor who is out on call. They find a young boy who collapses in front of them the doctor immediately springs into action desperately trying to restore circulation to the boy who loses control of all bodily functions and vomits the tell tale signs of creamed rice (le riz au lait), the two men work for two hours on the boy and Giono describes the desecration of the boy's body with the cholera in some detail. The boy dies horribly in spasms and the doctor anxiously asks Angelo if he can still feel his legs, but it is the doctor who succumbs and Angelo cannot save him.

Shaken by the events Angelo arrives in the town of Manosque at nightfall and when he is seen washing his hands in the fountain he is accused of spreading the disease; a local militia hunts him down but he manages to escape onto the rooftops of the houses. He spends the next few days living on the rooves, foraging below in abandoned houses for food and fighting off the swallows and crows who are becoming crazed with the availability of human flesh. Angelo witnesses many appalling scenes below of residents succumbing to the cholera. He finally gets off the roof when he goes to the help of a nun who has charged herself with helping the afflicted and removing those past all help. Angelo continues his travels when the cholera has wiped out most of the town; he is searching for his boyhood friend and comrade in arms Giuseppe who has also fled Italy, but travelling becomes increasingly difficult as the area is becoming shut down by the army in the belief that the contagion is spread by bodily contact. Angelo meets a young woman (much later revealed as Pauline) and protects her in her efforts to find her husband. They take small country roads and tracks trying to avoid the quarantines and become prisoners in a town where they are kept in an abandoned castle with other people picked up on the highways. They witness many more horrible deaths in a nightmare scenario, but Angelo's military training equips him to outwit the local militia's and police forces. The two never lose their self belief that they will come through the epidemic.

Giono's descriptions of the countryside burning under the heatwave are interlaced with his record of Angelo's journey and his battle with the cholera and the police forces. The horror of the deaths of those infected are given first hand portrayals as Angelo follows the example of the young French doctor in trying to do what he can to help. Angelo himself is honourable , courteous and optimistic, never giving up hope in the face of appalling events, he believes in the goodness of humanity despite his own experiences, but he is a proud man and this conflicts with his curtesy and he struggles with the events that have forced him from his homeland.

There are similarities to Albert Camus' [The Plague], published four years before but the feel and thrust of Giono's book is entirely different. It is less political, more earthy perhaps more fundamental and yet it has a similar idea of treating the disease as an occupying force. There is no cure and the country that Angelo travels through is similar to a country under army occupation. Angelo fights for his freedom, his liberty and his desire to make things right, however Giono has set his book back in the 1830's when a cavalry officer was seen as a heroic figure and Angelo and Pauline's honour and curtesy are far different from the characters that people Camus' book. Giono is concerned with morality, the instances of humans stepping up, taking enormous risks for the good of others, even when many have succumbed to a bleak worthless future, but the reality of the disease always grounds this book back in the dirt and filth of the darker side of humanity.

Towards the very end of the book as Angelo and Pauline are nearing the town of Gap high in the Alps, they come across a man living in a ruin of a house. Described as the "man in the redingote" (fitted coat and we never learn his name) he lives surrounded by books and artefacts. He feeds his visitors with a heartening stew and a good slug of rum, before launching into a lecture about the effects of the cholera on the population and his view on how people can survive. He appears to have been a doctor, but although he goes someway in getting closer to a way of preventing the spread of the disease he is more interested in theorising why it attacks some people and not others. His long speech (nearly twenty pages of the book) talks of how some people are more susceptible than others, according to their moral make up; their moral fibre. He condemns those who he says are jumping with pride and how the cholera reduces them down to the level of others. A certain pride has been an essential characteristic of Angelo: pride in his patriotism, pride in his beliefs and pride in his uniform and the speech goes some way to drawing together those elements in the book, despite if being incoherent in places and more like a rant. Angelo and Pauline still have a chapter of the book left to come to the end of their journey, but it is the speech of the "man in the redingote" that rings out most loud.

Some books are memorable because they provide a reading experience that is different from others; this maybe because of the way it is written or it maybe because of the place and time one chooses to read it. A book like Le Hussard sur le Toit can fall into that category, because of the relentless feel of the disease and the repetition of Giono's writing. There are pages of descriptions of the landscape and there are pages of descriptions of the effects of the cholera so that it all feels claustrophobic. Giono repeats himself driving home the atmosphere created by this novel, of course we want to know what happens to Angelo and there are some memorable incidents, but it is the feel of the burning heat in the countryside and the dirt and squalor of the disease that leaves a lasting impression. 5 stars. ( )
4 vote baswood | Aug 21, 2020 |
Le hussard sur le toit : avec son allure de comptine, ce titre intrigue. Pourquoi sur le toit ? Qu'a-t-il fallu pour l'amener là ? Rien moins qu'une épidémie de choléra, qui ravage la Provence vers 1830, et les menées révolutionnaires des carbonari piémontais. Le Hussard est d'abord un roman d'aventures ; Angelo Pardi, jeune colonel de hussards exilé en France, est chargé d'une mission mystérieuse. Il veut retrouver Giuseppe, carbonaro comme lui, qui vit à Manosque. Mais le choléra sévit : les routes sont barrées, les villes barricadées, on met les voyageurs en quarantaine, on soupçonne Angelo d'avoir empoisonné les fontaines ! Seul refuge découvert par hasard, les toits de Manosque ! Entre ciel et terre, il observe les agitations funèbres des humains, contemple la splendeur des paysages et devient ami avec un chat. Une nuit, au cours d'une expédition, il rencontre une étonnante et merveilleuse jeune femme. Tous deux feront route ensemble, connaîtront l'amour et le renoncement.
  Haijavivi | Jun 10, 2019 |
I read this in French "Le hussard sur le toit" and loved both the language and the story. Giono is less well-known to English readers than his Provençal fellow writer Marcel Pagnol, but his stories are lyrical, though there is a darker side to the traditional French peasant in Giono's vision. ( )
  harlandbrown | Nov 2, 2012 |
Different from his early novels, which in Germany probably would be classified as « Blut-und-Boden-Literatur », blood and soil literature, the later ones range, for my taste more amusing, in the category « adventure ».
  hbergander | Dec 12, 2011 |
First of a two part series (the 2nd book is titled 'The straw man' and for what it's worth there is another title 'Angelo' that refers to the same main character) this swashbuckling adventure story tells us about one Angelo Pardo and Italian nobleman and revolutionary traveling through the Provencal region of France and his mission to hook up with another revolutionary in the town of Manosque. As much a part of the story are 1) the Provencal region where Giono himself grew up which is beautifully rendered throughout and 2) an extremely deadly cholera epidemic that has the local authorities trying to seal off a vast area so that it won't spread throughout the country. And then there is Pauline a rich and beautiful lady married to a much older man who the ever gallant and somewhat ferociously adept with his sword Angelo takes upon himself to deliver back to her home and to her husband in one piece. This is a very exciting adventure story--especially once one gets into it a little way and Giono as a writer has a special talent for describing the natural wonders of his homeland. ( )
  lriley | Jul 29, 2006 |
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Si es Catalina de Acosta que anda buscando la sua estatua. (Calderon)
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L’aube surpris Angelo béat et muet mais réveillé.
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This is the epic tale of the adventures and heroic self-sacrifice of Angelo, a fugitive Italian nobleman, who returns to his homeland through Provence, at the height of the cholera epidemic. This story is soon to be released on film.

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