A question for author Éric Mathieu from translator Peter McCambridge
Your novel is set in France just after World War II. It’s a world in which everything seems to be drab, yellowed, faded. Would you say this applies to your characters, too? Has a form of moral decay set in?
Eric: Yes, definitely. The characters in the novel are very much like their surroundings: bleak, somber, a little scary even, except perhaps the younger characters. It is clear that World War II changed much of the dynamics between people in France and that it had a long-lasting impact, well into the 50s. France (like England and other countries in the region) had much to reconstruct and people didn’t have any money. There also had been much suspicion between people during the war (who was in the Resistance, who was a collaborator, who was a little bit of both, etc.) and questions continued, I think, well after 1945.
What Émile is going through in my novel is very much connected to the catastrophic events that started in 1940 (France surrenders). Émile’s father was made prisoner and spent five years in a camp in Germany. Men were away and women were very much alone during the war: they worked, they cared for the children, they did everything and they must have been very lonely. Émile’s mother has a fling with a US soldier who she houses for a while after he is injured and the mother lives with the memory of that faded love long after the war.
There is a sadness in the mother than never completely disappears. She is hardened by her lost love and every time she sees Émile, she is probably reminded of the soldier who she loved so much. Since it is in fact not clear who Émile’s real father is, he is sent away to a home and he himself becomes very lonely and sad. The boys’ home (a real place, by the way—despite being imbued by magic realism, my novel is full of things that are true!) is a very drab place. Many of the places described in the novel are dark places— Émile’s parent’s house, Ducal’s house, the houses the children visit when they keep a vigil over the dead—they are almost gothic. In the countryside, I don’t think things had changed very much since the 19th century and the two world wars didn’t help.
People plodded though life, they struggled. They were handicapped by rampant alcoholism (Marie’s parents drink and she starts drinking, too). Village life was controlled by hearsay and jealousy. Children were left to themselves and not looked after properly. All sorts of shady people wandered around, people like Marmol, the magician Émile meets, who is pure evil. Émile’s world is impossible to live in. It’s contaminated by toxic religion, inward looking, and unsafe. For Émile, childhood is a prison, and he can’t wait to set himself free and start a new life. But he remains hopeful, despite everything that happens to him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Éric Mathieu is a professor at the Department of Linguistics at the University of Ottawa and a writer. He studied at University College London and has lived in Canada’s capital since 2004. His first novel, Les suicidés d’Eau-Claire (La Mèche), was a finalist for the prestigious Trillium Book Award in 2017. Le Goupil, published in French by La Mèche and now translated as The Little Fox of Mayerville, is his second novel and the first to appear in English.