Wednesday, 29 August 2007

In Memoriam Rene Latournerie

I know that my last blog had a sad theme, but I'm afraid this one has too. Yesterday we heard of the death of our French friend, Rene Latournerie. He'd had colon cancer for several years and died on Sunday at the age of 69.

During the first half of the nineties, we had a half-share in an old French house near Bergerac. Rene and his wife Liliane befriended us and many were the mornings lost to the invitation to an 'apero' or two, many the afternoons fogged by the heat and the after-effects of too many Ricards.

When I was writing 'The Chase', Rene was immensely helpful. He was curt but with a twinkle in his eye, he had rarely stirred outside his region, he was a man who knew how to build things and who understood nature and who, we always felt, was entirely content with his lot. He was lean and solid as oak. He was also at times bigoted and narrow of view and he was bloodthirsty, priding himself in an extensive armoury of weapons with which to shoot the local 'gibier' - but he also believed that the game should always have a sporting chance to survive. He possessed no false sentimentality, no squeamishness: he came from a peasant culture where you did what you had to do to survive.

Many of his phrases and memories (like hiding in a cornfield when the Nazis arrived) entered my book. When I needed to write a crucial chapter about a boar hunt, Rene took us one day into the woods, while Liliane looked after our then-toddler son, Jack. The walk was utterly memorable and I was fascinated by everything he knew, everything he noticed, which we, poor clumsy city-dwellers, would have failed to spot. There was a secret life all around us and he provided the temporary bridge to it. Afterwards, I wrote the boar hunt chapter in one glorious burst and scarcely needed to tamper with a word of it afterwards. So thanks, Rene, for the information and for the experience.

We hadn't seen him for a few years, but believed, as you do, that he would be as permanent as the landscape he inhabited. We felt shell-shocked last night. But even stalwarts like Rene, landscapes and ways of life such as in the Perigord, all are vulnerable, in the end.

'Jean-Jacques, child of the land, tramps ahead of him in brown corduroys and a checked shirt, half-open. He carries his gun, his knife and a stout stick he uses to prod the ground or hold branches back for their passage. His voice is deep but low, his accent so strong that it loses Gerald and Edouard has to translate. Here, he says, the tracks of roedeer. There - that circle of white mouldy dots in the soil? - a mushroom is coming up. Up in that tree - nest of a buzzard. By your foot - the droppings of a weasel. He knows the names of everything, the significance of every sign, and dispenses information casually. He takes it all for granted. Gerald feels at the same time privileged and patronised. If ever I was stuck on a desert island, he thinks humbly, I'd be dead meat. Provisions could be right under my nose - I'd never see them. I know about mobile phones and how to set the video. Mother Nature didn't foster me. From time to time he asks a question: he asks Jean-Jacques to identify something for him, and the man gives him a measuring look, like a doctor in an asylum assessing how much the patient is capable of assimilating.' ('The Chase')

Salut, Rene.

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