Author: Michel Goujon
ISBN: 9782867 464775
Published on March 5, 2009
Editor: Editions Liana Levi
Author Michel Goujon was born in Saint-Tropez, France. He lived there for twenty years before heading north to work and settle in Paris. It seems that St Tropez has never left him.
Goujon already charmed us with one of the better local travel guides on St Tropez, Saint-Tropez et le pays des Maures published by Hachette in 2002.
So when we spotted his first novel on the shelves just published this Spring 2009, La madrague, we had to read it. In French, la madrague means a fish pound once used to capture tuna.
The novel describes the hardships of a young Simon Garcin as he grows up in the 18C in a bastide set on a large plot on the St Tropez peninsula close to the pointe de la Rabiou. I often hike the coastal path by the Rabiou headland with its tormented geologic folds and the sound of the gentle surf as it gurgles in the rocks.
Simon's early days are idyllic, bathed by the smells of the maquis plants, the posidonia sea weeds, the breeze. When his father sets out to sea after a disastrously wet harvest season, his life takes a turn into dark times.
It may not be prime literature, but I loved it.
Why? It makes the St Tropez peninsula I love come to life. It weaves descriptions of local surroundings, fishing habits, but also the intrinsically political struggles of local villagers in the 18C. It layers Simon's past life on the peninsula with his present incarceration in the infamous Toulon prison or bagne. In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Jean Valjean also had been a prisoner of the Toulon bagne.
The book weaves flashbacks of the boy's youth. They kept me in suspense. And I enjoyed the mirrored images of the captured fish embroiled in nets, the Toulon prison bars, the cry and eventual flight of the seagull.
La madrague pulls historical details into the story. I would have enjoyed more historical anecdotes and depth, but again, this isn't a history book.
The author insists, the book is a novel, a work of fiction. He dedicates a brief final chapter, Roman et réalité, to explain this. This in no way diminishes the story's captivating thread.
But St Tropez and the entire Provence coastal regorges in history. It's such a rich past ripe for more historical novels.
We know that extensive big game fisheries dotted the coast from Nice to Marseilles in those days. Extensive mazes of nets would encircle schools of pelagic fish as they made their Spring migrations along the southern coast of France. Typically, these were big game fish of the Scombridae family such as tuna but also bonitos. Fishermen, like maritime toreadors, would stand on their boats, harpoon and slaughter the captive fish. These were then common fishing methods in Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
Above photo La Pesca de Tonno from public domain painting by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1782. Part of his work "Voyage pittoresque des Isles de Sicile, de Malte et de Lipari." Paris, 1782.
We also know Toulon's history when its Royalist inhabitants handed the city with its critical military port to the then enemy English fleet. In 1793, after a 4-months siege of the city, the French Republicans expelled the British from Toulon. A young captain lead the French artillery forces in this effort: Napoleon Bonaparte.
All in all, this is a wonderful novel to soak deeper into St Tropez. For now, it's in French only.
Above Photo: Pointus at the St Tropez quay, May 2009.