BOOK REVIEW: LOVE by Guy De Maupassant


Khidki (Window)

–Read India Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

Maupassant is a 19th-century French author. He is remembered for his genius in the oeuvre of short stories. His title ‘Love’ will only make sense to kind and passionate human beings. Love is an emotion that abodes both in human beings and animals. But on a raw comparison one might find it to be more unalloyed in animals than in men.

Haven’t you heard of the love tragedy? He killed her then he killed himself, therefore, he loved her. So then, what does he or she signify singly and separately? Well they signify nothing. It is only when they unify in love the world comes alive for both of them.

In this story “Love” the narrator is reminded of a story after reading a tragic love story in one of the papers. The narrator’s story takes place long back in the days of his youth, during a hunting expedition at his cousin’s estate.

Narrator’s cousin, Karl de Rauville, invites the narrator to join him in a duck shooting expedition held early in the morning. Karl’s estate lies in a valley that has a river running through it. During dinner, in the great hall whose sideboards, walls, and ceiling were all covered with stuffed birds, with outstretched wings, or perched upon branches—hawks, herons, owls, nightjars, buzzards, vultures, falcons—and my cousin himself like some strange animal of the Arctic region, in his sealskin jacket, puts before me all the plans he had made for this night.

It is very scenic there. The river has naturally promoted healthy plant growth along its banks. There are many trees with good foliage that attracts birds of all kinds on the land. At some point, the river expands into a marsh that the narrator describes as “the best hunting ground” he has ever seen.

The group leaves for the marsh a little after three in the morning. It consists of the narrator, his cousin Karl, the gamekeeper and the dogs Plongeon and Pierrot. The narrator describes his cousin Karl, ‘as a jolly red-headed and big bearded, immensely powerful fellow of forty, a lively and likeable sort of a beast, who had within him just that pinch of Attic-salt that makes mediocrity tolerable, lived the life of a country gentleman in a house which was half-farm, half-mansion, in a broad valley through which a river flowed.’

The narrator further goes on to describe the surroundings. Woods covered the hills on either side, with magnificent trees, in which were to be found, rare examples of game-birds than in any other district close by. Sometimes eagles were shot, and also birds flying south, which hardly ever came near the over-populated parts of the country.

The valley was covered with huge pastures, irrigated by ditches and divided by hedges. The river narrow at first, spreads out at a distance way into an immense marsh. This marsh, was the best bit for shooting I have ever known, and was my cousin’s biggest love. He looked after it, as he would look after a treasure.

The narrator further describes the scenery around. I love water passionately and whole-heartedly. The sea, although it is too vast, too turbulent, impossible to call one’s own, rivers on the contrary are so pretty, but then they hurry by and vanish forever. A marsh is a world of its own upon this earth of ours.

There is at times nothing more disturbing, disquieting, or more terrifying, than a bog-land. Whence, comes this fear which hovers over low-lying tracts of land covered with water? Is it in the whispering of the reeds, the weird will-o-the-wisps, the deep silence in which they were wrapped on still nights, or the fantastic mists which cover the rushes as with a shroud, or the barely-noticeable noises. So light, so gentle, yet, at times, more terrifying than the thunder of man or of the gods? Do these give marshes the appearance of some dreamland, of some dread country, which hides some secret, harmful and not to be known by mortal man?

It was freezing hard enough to split stones. We were to leave at half-past three in the morning so as to arrive about half-past four at the place chosen for our shooting expedition. At this place a hut had been constructed out of blocks of ice to shelter us a little from the terrible wind which rises just before dawn.

I woke up at 3’o clock. I put on a sheepskin and found my cousin Karl clothed in bearskin. After two cups of hot coffee and a couple of glasses of cognac, we set out with our game-keeper and our dogs, Plongeon and Pierrot.

It was freezing and I felt frozen to the bones. It was one of those nights when the earth seemed to be frozen to death. The icy air rose as a veritable wall which one could feel horribly and painfully. No breath of wind moves it. There it is, solid and immovable. It bites, pierces, withers, kills trees, plants, insects, even little birds, which fall from the branches on to the hard ground, and themselves become hard in the embrace of the cold

With bent backs, hand in pockets, and guns under our arms, Karl and I strode along. Our boots, wrapped round with wool to prevent us slipping on the frozen brooks, made no noise. I noticed how our dogs’ breath turned into steam in the cold air.

We soon reached the edge of the marsh, and we entered one of the avenues of dry reeds leading through the low forest.

Suddenly, at the bend of one of the avenues, I saw the hut made of ice, which had been set up as a shelter for us. I went in, and as we had still an hour to pass before the birds awakened, I rolled myself up in my sheepskin to try to get warm.

My cousin Karl was alarmed. ‘It will be a great nuisance if we don’t shoot something today’, he said. ‘I don’t want you to catch cold, so we must have a fire.’

He then ordered the gamekeeper to cut some reeds for the fire.

Slowly the day broke, clear with a blue sky. The sun came up over the bottom of the valley and we were thinking of going home, when two birds, with necks and wings out stretched, suddenly glided over our heads, I fired, and one of them, a teal with a silver breast, fell almost at my feet. Then, high above me, the cry of a bird was heard—a shrill heart rending wail, which it uttered again and again. And the little creature, the survivor of the two, began to circle around in the blue sky above us, watching its dead companion which I was holding.

Karl was watching it keenly, waiting till it came within range.

‘You have killed the hen,’ he said, ‘the cock won’t go away.’

Indeed it did not go away, but continued to circle and to cry piteously over our heads. Never has the groan of one in pain harrowed my heart so much as that call of distress, as that wail of reproach from the poor creature high up in the sky.

Once or twice it fled as it saw the threat of the gun which followed its flight, and it seemed prepared to continue its journey across the sky, all alone. Then as if unable to make up its mind, it would soon return to look for its companion.

‘Put the other one down, as it will return by and by,’ said Karl.

In reality, it came back, indifferent to the danger, maddened by its wild love for the creature I had killed.

Karl fired. It was as if the cord which was holding the bird above us had been cut. I saw a black thing come down. I heard the noise of its fall in the reeds. And Pierrot the dog brought it to me.

I put the two, already cold, into the same bag … and I went back to Paris that very day.

After knowing the narrator’s story, one can see why the newspaper story—where a man kills his lover, then kills himself— appeals to the narrator. The two stories are about love, the only difference being that one talks about love between humans, and the other about love between animals. In both, the surviving lovers choose death over life.

The narrator shoots down a duck, and its mate remains, crying piteously over his dead love. The male duck the drake “does not fly away, instead, he circles over their heads continually, and continues his cries.” The narrator and his cousin Karl, don’t even spare the mourning drake. They shoot him down, using its dead mate as an emotional bait.

The story has a long build up but at the end it delivers a great message of deviousness that a man is used to. The description of the jungle, woods and the birds is par-excellence. I would give the story seven out of ten.

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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