Translated by Sam Taylor
I love French adventure/crime/thrillers, and would happily read any books along that line that Gallic Books (one of my fave indie publishers) produce, especially as this one is translated by one of the superstars of French-English translation, Sam Taylor. This novel has already been a huge bestseller in France, so it was a shame that it fell slightly flat for me. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy it, but it lacked a certain spark that would have elevated it into a great read. (Eric at Lonesome Reader felt the same way, read his review here). Even more so, because Carys Davies says ‘Sublime’ on her cover quote, and her own novella West (my review here), which bears some superficial similarities in its mindset, to this novel is actually a truly sublime book. Both involve a man with a single-minded belief that he can find dinosaurs and sets out to prove it, but there they separate.
Andrea’s novel is set in the mid 1950s. Our narrator, Stan, is a young professor of palaeontology in Paris. His star assistant had been a young Italian, a giant of a man called Umberto, now a professor in his own right. Stan has arranged to meet Umberto in the Alps on the Italian border for a summer project.
‘…You’re going to have to tell us what we’re looking for.’
So here we are. No turning back now. Do you really want to know, Berti? I breathe in the air that sings like metal through the open window. If I had known the value of that heat, I never would have let it go.
‘A dragon. We’re looking for a dragon.’
Stan, who is now in his early fifties, has never had a big find – the kind that gets named after you. When he hears the story that an old man tells of the dragon’s skeleton in a mountain cave at the foot of a glacier, he realises that this will probably be his last chance to find a dinosaur. He does his research, narrowing down the location into a tight area to search. Umberto books a guide and arranges supplies. When they finally meet up, Stan is annoyed to find that Berti has brought his own assistant, a German student called Peter, with him. With guide Gio, they set off up into the mountains – they only have a limited time there before the weather turns. It will be a case of man vs mountain as you can imagine, and the effects of living up there at altitude in the snow will affect all four in different ways, and Stan is not much of a mountaineer.
As I already mentioned, Stan is totally blinkered about his quest, his entire being is consumed by it. Once up in the mountains, a lot of his time is spent thinking about it and also going over episodes from his childhood. Once encamped there, he has little time for his companions, the wise Gio, the friendly (Sulley-like Monsters Inc!) Berti, and the strange Peter, who has brought a puppet doll with him up the mountain. Yes, when the puppet comes out around the campfire, voicing the concerns that the others daren’t say, I flinched too! Stan retreats more and more into his mind, and we largely miss out on an opportunity to celebrate the beauty and terror of their alpine environment. Also, it was hard to warm to Stan whereas you can’t help liking Umberto and Gio; Stan’s pride gets in the way.
Maybe it was a case of expecting more of a man vs mountain thriller, than the intense internalising of Stan that disappointed slightly. It was still a good read, and an ideal summer one at long novella length. 7.5/10
Source: Review copy – thank you. Jean-Baptiste Andrea, transl. Sam Taylor (Gallic, Jun 16 2020) paperback original, 170 pages.