There are contrasts between the urban and rural in any country, but I sometimes think that Romania is an extreme example of that. No wonder I am dazed when I go back there for any period of time!
When I went to Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016, I was asking the booksellers what editions of Pascal Garnier and Jean-Claude Izzo they had (I was stocking up for my imminent departure from France). One of them told me: ‘If you like those writers, you might want to try this new novel by a Belgian author, Patrick Delperdange.’ It’s a sort of rural noir and its title indicates the bleakness of the subject matter: ‘If all the gods were to abandon us’.
Three years later, I finally read the book and it is indeed a very dark yet beguiling tale set in a tiny Belgian village close to the French border. There aren’t very many parts of Belgium that aren’t overpopulated, but this area seems to be remote and devoid of inhabitants. So much so that one of the main characters, a young girl Céline, escaping a violent relationship, walks down the road for miles without seeing another soul. She is somewhat relieved when she hitches a ride with a kindly but fairly taciturn old man Léopold, who offers her a place in his house overnight ‘if you don’t mind ghosts’.
Typical horror story trope, you might think, but in fact Léopold is a widower and the old farmhouse is still full of his wife’s presence. It is also rather primitive, without a proper bathroom, so Céline is grateful for his hospitality but also understandably eager to move on. She leaves the house to continue her solitary journey, but it starts snowing and she gets bitten by two fierce dogs and collapses in the snow. Luckily, Léopold finds her, brings her home and calls in a doctor to tend to her wounds. The dogs belong to Maurice, a bad-tempered local man, and when he finds out that one of his dogs has been wounded, he is furious.
The young girl and the old man start living together in his house, at least until she is able to walk without a crutch again,providing each other some much-needed comfort, without asking too many questions. But of course their situation gives rise to local gossip. One of the people who doesn’t know what to make of the stories is Josselin, Maurice’s younger brother. Regarded as somewhat simple-minded by his brother and by the village community, he is a bit creepy about women (and about Maurice’s former wife, who ran off with a waiter), but nevertheless an excellent observer of all the little human foibles.
The story is told in short chapters alternating between the points of view of Céline, Léopold and Josselin. None of them is quite what they appear to be at first sight, none of them are particularly likeable. They each have a darker back story and this meshing of stories is heightened by the closed-off, suspicious, very drab and grey community that they are living in. Things soon take a turn for the worse, and it does seem indeed as though there is no hope, no salvation, no well-disposed god for these three (very fallible, very pitiful) human beings.
There are indeed elements of Pascal Garnier here: eccentric, ambiguous characters (who turn out to be quite different than you might expect at first), the sombre atmosphere of storm clouds gathering and then the flashes of violence that seem to come out of nowhere, a sense of inexorable fate about the unfolding of the story. There are differences, however. Everything is told in the first person – and, although in many cases the protagonists are lying to themselves, that does make for a more personal and passionate take on things. The ending is also quite ambiguous, as if the author had decided that he wanted to offer a glimmer of hope to the readers after all.
Above all, it is a perfect portrayal of the flat, wooded Belgian countryside, which becomes another main character, without ever being described in great detail: neither beautiful nor ugly, neither welcoming nor hostile, a landscape that is only charming to visitors, a place that seems to promise sanctuary but ends up poisoning you. This is the landscape adjacent to the First World War battlefields, after all.
The book has not been translated into English, but I think it would certainly appeal to readers of Garnier. It would also make for a good film.