QC Fiction will be releasing their second English language translation of a French novel in November 2016. It is entitled The Unknown Huntsman (Le chassuer inconnu) by Jean-Michel Fortier. Their first release was the excellent Life in the Court of Matane by Eric Dupont.The Unknown Huntsman is a difficult book to describe. I was reading it at work one evening when I spontaneously chuckled out loud. My co-worker asked me what was funny about what I was reading. I was hard-pressed to explain the story to her, and anything I write here will not do it justice, but I will try without giving away too much. The novel itself is only 192 pages, so I will keep this brief.
There are lots of “unknowns” in this book: the time period (although electric lights and telephones are mentioned), the location (a small village at the end of a road, backed by woods) certain characters (such as the “Professor”) and the narrator. Only a handful of characters are identified by proper names. Most, if not all of the action takes place in the parish hall in basement of the village church on Mondays when the village council meets and Fridays when an anonymous group meets in secrecy led by the charismatic Professor. The narrator (always “we”) tells us, often in a gossipy way, whispering to us as if we were visitors, the background history of the various participants in the council (priest, mayor, baker and other assorted villagers) as the meeting progresses. He does the same at the Friday meetings, which we are to assume are attended by many (but not all) of the same Monday night regulars. However, the Professors’ meetings are more of revivalist-style affair with cheering, clapping and the hanging on to of every word coming out of the Professors’ mouth. Oh yes: the Professor also carries a handgun which he is not afraid to pull out and use.
The fun really begins when a census-taker appears in the town (at the Friday meeting, of all times). The villagers are leery enough about outsiders, but one from the government? That cannot be tolerated; he must leave immediately! The professor laments to his followers:
Perhaps I should have gotten rid of that meddler right away….trouble, my children, there’s trouble in store, I’m telling you!
Now does that not sound like the makings of a fascinating and humorous tale? In fact, I think this would make a great stage play since there is only one set (the church basement) and the same handful of characters. The Unknown Huntsman does have its moments where I found myself chuckling out loud at the narrator’s comments during the claustrophobic basement meetings:
What a strange meeting, what suffocating heat, what strange times, my friends, we murmur all together, what strange times, my friends: only two months ago we were considering a simple bread theft and now here we are, sweating profusely and in distress. We think back to last year, so peaceful, so pleasant, with the only tragedy the suicide of Mayor Morton, and we miss those days of quiet monotony.
A thoroughly enjoyable read (and you may want to re-read it to see what you might have missed the first time) from QC Fiction, and translator Katherine Hastings was performed a worthy service to English readers, for I cannot imagine this book being any more humorous in its original language: all the nuances, idioms and turns of phrases appear to be intact. If you like offbeat, avant-garde humour with a little darkness thrown in, then The Unknown Huntsman will appeal to you.