Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Derborence: When the Mountain Fell’

“I’m a landslide, open season’s just begun”

Derborence, which is published by Helvetiq, is based on a novel by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz from 1934. It’s set in the 1700s, and it’s about an avalanche in the Swiss Alps. It was adapted by Fabian Menor, who had help with the layouts from Ajša Zdravković, it’s been translated by Michelle Bailet-Jones, edited by Richard Harvell, and proofread by Karin Waldhauser.

This is a very quiet book (except for, you know, the avalanche). It tells a simple story, in which a man, Antoine, goes up the mountain with his new wife’s uncle, Séraphin, to tend the cows for the summer. He leaves behind his wife, Thérèse, who discovers while he’s away that she’s pregnant. While the men are on the mountain, there’s an avalanche that kills everyone … or so it seems. In the book, apparently, there’s a noticeable passage of time – almost two months. In the comic, time also passes, but it’s not quite as obvious. Either way, Antoine is not dead – he was in a spot that, miraculously, was untouched by the rocks, creating a small pocket in which he survived and was able to dig out of. When he returns to the village, the people aren’t quite sure if he’s a ghost or not, although after their initial shock, they’re happy to see him. Thérèse doesn’t tell him she’s pregnant, as she doesn’t get much time alone with him as the townspeople are celebrating his return. He hears that Séraphin’s body has not been recovered, and he’s convinced he’s still alive, so he goes back up the mountain to find him, much to his wife’s chagrin. She decides she’s going to go up and fetch him, despite her pregnancy and despite the menfolk of the town telling her she’s foolish, as Antoine is either insane or actually has been a spirit all along. Does she find him? Ah, that would be telling, now wouldn’t it?

As you can tell, there’s not a lot of churning plot in this book, but that’s fine. Not everything has to be an intricate story, after all. What a contemplative book like this allows us to do is project our own thoughts onto it, and those may or may not have anything to do with what the author(s) wanted. In this book, we get the superstition of the locals, which could easily be a critique of the backwardness of the rural people (probably not, given that Ramuz grew up in the area) or even a critique of religion, which appears like superstition if you want to look at it that way. Antoine is a Christ figure, after all, and the people are suspicious of him for a while and then a bit scared of him because he doesn’t fit into their society very well anymore. There’s also a touch of xenophobia, as Antoine has become the “other,” and people don’t quite know how to approach him. Even Thérèse wants to tell Antoine about her pregnancy but hesitates, fearing, perhaps, his reaction (Antoine is a bit confused about her presence, which leads her to believe that either it’s not really him or something has irrevocably changed in him). In this relationship, we also get a metaphor for a dissolving marriage, as Antoine is so focused on other things that he misses the fact that his wife is pregnant, and she doesn’t tell him. Does she think he might do exactly what he does, which is run for the hills (quite literally)? He wants to find Séraphin, of course, but this could be seen as someone shirking their responsibilities to chase pipe dreams. It’s a miracle that Antoine is alive. It’s doubtful they’d get another one and find Séraphin alive, too. The quiet of the pages and the silence of the characters allows the reader to fill in the blanks. We might be not picking up the author’s intent, but it’s what we can take from the book that matters. You might get something completely different.

Menor’s art is also fairly contemplative, which aids with the tone of the book. About 40 pages in, we get several double-page spreads of the avalanche, and while there’s not a lot of detail – just a lot of violent brushstrokes – it’s still a clever way to divide the book into pre- and post-landslide periods, as it forms a solid barrier between the world as the people knew it and the strange world they enter after the mountain falls. Menor uses thick, somewhat ragged brushstrokes to create a world dominated by unruly nature, where the people – who are drawn more delicately and who are colored with more shading – seem small and out of place. He does a lot with a little, twisting mouths into small smiles when something good happens, as if the townspeople can’t quite believe their good fortune and are wary of it changing, and when Antoine comes back, he’s very good at making Thérèse both happy and pensive, as she’s unsure what has happened to her husband. The post-avalanche scenes, in which Menor shrouds everything in dreary and fuzzy watercolors, are very well done, as are the scenes when Antoine comes out of the mountain. His beard has grown, naturally, but Menor draws him a bit more ragged, implying that he himself has become part of nature, and when he gets back to the village, his new rough-hewn status doesn’t quite work with the civilized world. Even when he shaves, he still looks a bit off, and it’s not surprising that he heads back up the mountain. Menor’s art is rough and angular, reflecting the rough world of the 18th-century Alps. It looks simple, but it’s a bit more complex than it looks.

Derborence is an interesting look at how a community can be shattered and how it can put itself back together, even if it’s in a different form. It shows the power of the community bond, but also how that can become something darker, and while it’s not a horror book by any means, that darkness at the fringes lends it a slight menacing undertone that makes it more compelling. It’s very thought-provoking, and isn’t that something we all want from our fiction?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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