Antoine Sylvère's Toinou: Le cri d'un enfant auvergnat

June 3, 2014 | By Book Department

Professor Emeritus, editor and renowned translator Steven Rendall gives us his view on the spellbinding tale Toinou, featuring a presentation of translated excerpts for the My French Library series.


The Other Side of the Belle Époque

            The night of 22 November 1942 is cloudless and cold. Four men are waiting in a clearing in a hilly area of Burgundy. Finally they hear a plane approaching overhead. Parachutes glimmer in the moonlight. The men run to pick up packages containing rifles, grenades, and a radio transmitter, which is immediately taken to Paris. One of the men is Antoine Sylvère, a local Resistance leader who operates a logging business in the area that provides a refuge for communists on the run from the Gestapo. 

            Sylvère was an extraordinary man who had led a colorful if difficult life. Born into grinding poverty near the small town of Ambert in central France, he had escaped to join the Foreign Legion, serve as an officer in the French army during World War I, and become a self-taught engineer and factory manager. But seeing how big industrialists exploited sugarbeet growers, he organized one of the first producers' cooperatives. This was considered "subversive" and cost him his job. During the 1930s he supported himself by writing popular articles on science and technology and actively supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. During this same period he began to write stories about the world of his childhood. 

            A quarter of a century after Sylvère's death these stories were published in Plon's prestigious Terre des hommes series under the title Toinou: Le cri d'un enfant auvergnat (1980). They constitute an autobiography narrating the author's life up to the time that he joined the Foreign Legion. (The Plon volume also includes Sylvère's brief account of his experiences in the Legion) The book is a a searing, unforgettable account of what was like to grow up poor in rural France at the end of the nineteenth century...

            Toinou (the diminutive of Antoine, Sylvère's first name) is the son of a sharecropper and sometime logger who drinks up most of the family's meager income and is barely able to make ends meet. The boy attends a local primary school run by Dominican nuns whose pedagogy relies heavily on the rod. His teacher is a strict disciplinarian whom he calls "the monster with glasses.". She expects her pupils to learn their lessons by heart and beats and humiliates them when they do not. She is indefatigable; as Sylvère puts it, "she managed to teach three generations of our family without producing the slightest result.". Toinou's only consolations at this time are his schoolmate Marinou, who becomes his "guardian angel," and his grandfather. The latter is an eccentric autodidact, a man who would have been a scientist had education been available to him. He gives the boy the understanding, encouragement, and affection he has never received from his parents and has a decisive influence on his life.  

            Other formative influences include a local character called Pantomin, who keeps the local gas works running and offers a radically skeptical perspective on events in Ambert, and the Baudouins, a decent young couple who live on a nearby farm and for whom Toinou works, experiencing for the first time a sense of family life and gaining confidence in his own abilities. But the Baudouins are driven to despair by the tax collector, dishonest middlemen, and a neighbor who steals their irrigation water.  In a rage, Baudouin kills the neighbor, and Toinou is ostracized because of his friendship with him. However, perhaps the most important figure in Toinou's development is a new teacher who recognizes his ability and treats him fairly. Toinou responds by conceiving an insatiable desire for knowledge. 

            Toinou begins to hang out with older boys in the town who are even more rebellious than he. These include an idler known as "Not in a Hurry" who specializes in saving people caught in housefires, a former soldier who quit the army after being sent to the stockade for having broken the stock of his rifle, and the Goret brothers, who are involved in the illicit manufacture of matches (a state monopoly in France). Eventually, he is drawn into a scheme to defraud the post office by slipping into the mailman's sack false money orders made out to him. When this is discovered, he is forced flee, leaving Ambert for the first time in his life.

            He makes his way to Marseille, and then sails for Tunisia, where he gets a job as a manual laborer. But when he gets into a fight with a fellow worker who pulls a knife on him, he hits the man with a shovel.  Fearing that he has killed him, again he flees and joins the Foreign Legion, taking another step down the long, winding road that leads to that clearing in the forest in 1942.

            One might expect an autobiographical  narrative written by a self-taught engineer/factory manager to be clumsy and conventional. Toinou is neither. Sylvère writes in a spare, sinewy style that vibrates with authentic feeling but retains a razor-sharp edge. He describes the world in which he grew up with a potent combination of sympathy and ironic humor, frequently making clever use of his younger self's Candide-like naïveté. For example, when the town is scandalized by the news that a local girl has run off to work in a brothel in Lyon, Toinou can't understand what all the fuss is about: as he sees it, she is simply helping soldiers and other men to enjoy genteel life in pleasant surroundings for a few hours. But while the depiction of the bleak reality of life in Ambret is often tempered by humor, other passages powerfully convey the raw violence and cruelty of the situation. A local man who supplies the city brothels with poor girls from the countryside is killed by the brother of one of his victims, while another girl who has been violated at gunpoint is subsequently gang-raped by boys who consider her a whore; afterward, she commits suicide. Sylvère's view of rural life is anything but sentimental or nostalgic, but neither is it merely a bitter diatribe.

             An English translation of Toinou would, I think, appeal to readers of The Horse of Pride  by P.-J. Hélias (who wrote the preface to the Plon edition of Toinou), Émile Guillaumin's The Life of a Simple Man (preface by Eugen Weber), and Lawrence Wylie's Village in the Vaucluse, all of which have been in print for many years. Toinou deserves to take its place alongside these classics. Above all, it provides a different perspective on the glittering "Belle Époque" with which we are much more familiar.


Selected Translations from Antoine Sylvère's Toinou: Le cri d'un enfant auvergnat

Proposed English title: Hellfire Can't Stop You, a translation of the last line of the book.

The opening paragraphs set the style:

Once my mother had brought me into the world, she found herself in possession of a temporary source of income that she sorely needed. Having become a milk-cow without ceasing to be a beast of burden, this twenty-year-old peasant woman was a hot item, and local gossips wasted no time in spreading the word. After a little haggling, some well-to-do people in Lyon acquired her services for a small fee, and my mother’s breasts left for the city, to delight a so-called little sister whose name I don’t recall.

            While my mother was being a wet nurse to children in Lyon, my father was working as a sawyer in Normandy, in the Brotonne forest, with a team of men like him—strong, undemanding, and capable of laboring fifteen hours a day in order to show that they were not afraid of work. The owner found this very satisfactory, and the great beech trees were felled, opening up clearings filled with piles of logs and cords of firewood. Rain and snow did not stop the woodcutters, who were not afraid their limbs would rust. My father nonetheless got a case of pleurisy that later on provided him with good topics of conversation. 

            My mother performed her double mission without a hitch, and received wages that enabled her to care for her lord and master and to get back home. As in every properly formulated equation, the result of this speculation was zero, if we set aside the chronic congestion of my father’s lungs and forty years of miseries proceeding from an illness treated once and for all; there was never any question of paying for further treatment. 

The following passage (from Chapter 3)  illustrates the way Sylvère exploits Toinou's naïve point of view to deliver a biting yet humorous critique of society.  One of the village girls has become a prostitute in Lyons: 

That very evening, within each home, people were talking about the matter; everywhere children were crowding around their parents, opening their eyes wide and opening their mouths and ears, trying to understand what a sentence that was perfectly clear to grownups failed to tell them. 

            Là filhà de là Marranà i entradà o bordel ("The Marrane woman's daughter went into a whorehouse").

            While men talked about whorehouses as women talked about church, I 'd never heard anyone say that a woman had gone to one. The fact had a certain importance, but I attached to it only a documentary value, as I did later when I learned that a young woman of great ability had entered the Normal School. 

            People repeated this news so often, with strange expressions on their faces, that my curiosity was inevitably aroused. At the time, I had a certain amount of information on the subject. I imagined a whorehouse to be a sort of church where mysterious rites were celebrated. They were found down there in the cities, and soldiers could attend the ceremonies at half price. 

            On this topic I even possessed some reliable facts. I'd heard Pantomin state that to "go upstairs," soldiers paid only twenty sous, while civilians had to shell out forty. So things happened more or less the way they did in the stalls set up on the square for the Corpus Christi holiday; soldiers paid only half-price, like children. Except that children weren't allowed to go into the whorehouse.

            The business about the Marrane woman's daughter clarified many things, and I was able to pick up numerous bits of information that provided me, I must say, with more precise ideas. Not only was the whorehouse not closed to girls, but all the girls who didn't get married and didn't know how to make a living could go into it. There they were fed and didn't work, so they were always in debt to the patrons, who gave them money. Since they could never pay this money back, they were held hostages and expected to remain there the rest of their lives. 

            So we'd never see the Marrane woman's daughter again. 

            In the whorehouse, men who had paid were received by girls like her, dressed up like ladies, in a beautiful room with armchairs, a little as the bourgeois in the town received the curé. Men who didn't have much money could in this way lead, for an hour or two, the life of the wealthy. The chairs were comfortable, people talked very politely, and all that for forty sous--twenty for soldiers. 

            On the other hand, I didn't understand at all the harsh criticism directed toward the Marrane woman's daughter. It was pure jealousy, such as people felt for that twenty year old serving girl who had married her boss, forty years her senior. People talked about the one as they had talked about the other. 

            "That hussy," the women said, "I'd never have believed such a thing!"

            Some of them cynically expressed approval:

            "Don't worry about it: she will be happier than you are, after all!  Her shirt will smell more often of shit than of sweat."

            To my mind, this very colorful assessment was in no way conclusive. I provide it as documentation, in order to show how women in my village classified the various social categories according to the smell of their shirts. 

Later in the same chapter, beggars congregate every Monday before the doors of the wealthy in Ambert:

Early in the morning, the cripples, the poor, and vagrants came down from the villages and lined up in front of the doors of the good houses--those of notaries, cloth merchants, and land owners who rented out a large number of farms and thereby maintained their own opulent way of life. The ragged beggars stood in line as long as it took to form a sufficiently large group, thus providing bourgeois vanities with a flattering audience. At the cost of one louis a week, or ten sous a head, the bourgeois were able to afford a miserable line of forty poor people who waited for two hours until the lady of the house came to give them alms.  

            "You have to wait for everyone to get here," the servants said, "and Madame is not yet ready."

            The wait was particularly long in front of the house of Madame Pitarque, who distributed a "specialty.". At the butcher shop, she bought the heads of cows that had been slaughtered in the town, and whose edible parts had already been removed. In a gigantic cauldron, her maid boiled the heads whole, after which she made a sort of pâté that the wretched particularly liked. 

            Pantomin, who was nobody's fool, analyzed this situation harshly: 

            "The hussies! They make them wait two hours for their piece of stale bread and the pittance they give them with it! When it's freezing cold and the skin of your belly is showing through the holes in your shirt, I say that's two sous well earned." 

            "But they aren't obliged to give anything, after all," some people observed. "They could just as well hang onto their sous and keep their asses warm."

            "That's just the problem," Pantomin replied angrily. "They could do that and there wouldn't be anything to keep them from doing it."

            I don't know whether the custom is still followed, whether the saintly ladies of the town still practice the same kind of charity on Mondays, whether you still see, standing in front of the polished oak doors on frosty winter mornings, groups of old men in rags, paying the price for the cruel generosity of "kind souls" by waiting in the cold. 

Finally, taken from Chapter 11,  a fundamental contrast between the view of France associated with the expression "la belle époque" and that provided by this book:

At that time, France was the richest country in the world. It produced too much wine, too much wheat. The banks "siphoned off" an excess amounting to billions of francs, which they sent all over Europe and overseas. They financed the construction of American ports and various foreign enterprises. Part of the money returned to the country, where it was invested in luxury items and in paying for venal love affairs and scandals.The demi-monde dazzled people with the sparkle of its pearls and diamonds, and fancy women in black stockings tantalized men in the cities. It was the marvelous "gilded age," the belle époque.

Half a century later, I, Toinou, was to be very surprised to learn about it.


Steven Rendall has translated over seventy books from French and German (for details, see http://srendall.free.fr/Sr-page.html). He has won the National Jewish Book Council's Sandra Brand and Arik Weintraub Award and the Modern Language Association's Scaglione Prize for his translations, and he was also a finalist for the 2011 and 2012 French-American Foundation/Florence Gould Foundaiton translation awards. He is Professor Emeritus of the University of Oregon and Editor Emeritus of the journal Comparative Literature, and has published many studies on early modern French literature and literary theory. He lives in a village in southwest France with his wife, two dogs, three cats, and four chickens.   


My French Library is a space for translators, writers and French aficionados to tell us about books they loved in French, but which have not been translated (yet). To be continued, hopefully one day in translation: American publishers, the floor is yours!

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