Translated by Emily Boyce
Originally I planned to review this novella for Shiny, but I was enjoying it so much I neglected to make notes and mark pages to come back to. Then, when I sat down to write the usual longer form review that we aim for at Shiny, I couldn’t manage to write enough. I very rarely get reading slumps, but I do get reviewing ones! But this is a super novella from one of my favourite indie publishers, and translated by the ever-reliable Emily Boyce at Gallic Books, so I have to review it, even if I don’t write much.
For a novel of a mere 159 pages, Heritage has an epic feel.
Bonnefoy was inspired to write this novella by his own father’s family line. He was born in France to a Venezuelan mother and Chilean father, and his third novel will take the reader from France to Chile and back through several generations of the fictional Lonsonier family.
In 1878, blight was killing French vines, and one winegrower decides to sail for California, taking his last surviving vine with him. Having rounded Cape Horn, he was taken ill and forced to leave the ship at Valparaiso. Speaking no Spanish, he is asked for his name and replies with his birthplace, the officer writes down his name as Lonsonier, for Lons-le-Saunier–and thus a new dynasty was born in Chile and a new vineyard planted. He married a Frenchwoman though, Delphine, who loved birds, amassing a large collection over the years.
Old Lonsonier’s son Lazare takes up the story, telling how he and his two brothers returned to France to fight in WWI. There will be tragedy, but also an act of comradeship across the trenches that allows Lazare to get away from the front line, returning home to find a wife and start a new family business. Lazare’s daughter Margot grew up to become an aviatrix, and as WWII got underway she announced:
‘I’m off to fight for France,’ she told him.
He saw himself twenty-five years earlier, standing naked in the middle of the lemon-scented living room, holding up his fist as he uttered these same words–the words of a lost young man. At the age of forty-six, his passion for France remained as strong as it had been in his youth, but so too did his fear of war. He begged her to stay.
Margot will return a different woman, and will go on to have a son of uncertain parentage. Meanwhile Chile is becoming a dangerous place as Allende is replaced by Pinochet, and Margot and Ilario Da, as her son is called, plan to return to France.
This story of four generations spanning a century of key events in history, is epic, but also close up and personal. The writing may be brief, but it includes just the right amount of detail to allow us to imagine the scene – the scents, sounds and colours, not to forget the emotional states of the characters. There is tragedy and happiness, love and loss, war and peace, and the ghosts of the past haunt the present. Above it all, there is family, and the Lonsoniers’ story feels like it will carry on after we have left the pages.
I loved the way that this novella felt very French but at the same time was full of South American colour. Emily Boyce is one of Gallic Books’ in-house translators and has once again made it seem effortless.
Heritage is a rather lovely novella that I can heartily recommend.
Source: Review copy – Thank you to Gallic Books. Paperback, April 2022, 158 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.