Patrick Leigh Fermor was one of the greatest – if not the greatest – travel writers of the 20th century. The Violins of Saint-Jacques, the book I am reviewing here, is his only novel.
The narrator of the book spends part of his holiday on an Aegean island. He gets acquainted with Berthe, an elderly French lady who lives permanently on the island and who is a very respected figure there.
While dining at her home, the narrator gets interested in one of Berthe’s paintings, a landscape of the Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques. Since the narrator visited this region not long ago, an interesting conversation starts during which Berthe begins to tell the story of her life that is closely connected to Saint-Jacques. She has lived during the most happy and exciting years of her life in this tropical paradise.
Having lost her parents in France at the age of twenty, young Berthe has practically nothing except her good education. An invitation from a relative in Saint-Jacques to work as a governess for his children is accepted by the penniless young woman immediately. The reception by her cousin, Count Serindan, and his family is warm and friendly and the children, just a few years younger as Berthe get soon very attached to the new arrival.
Count Serindan is the richest landowner of Saint-Jacques and also its mayor. Although in his political opinions a monarchist and reactionary, the Count is a charming and warm person who governs his estate (like his family) as a well-meaning father; his black workers – some are actually not so dark as a result of generations of extramarital activities of the Serindans – are treated well and are genuinly fond of the Count; he is also adored by his children and Berthe. (The mother is a somewhat absent person, ill in a vague manner and either on holidays in Europe or withdrawn to her study room.)
The Count is not only a womanizer and philanderer, he is also a man of pleasure in a wider sense. He loves to organize house concerts – he plays several instruments very well -, he is an avid amateur actor, playwright and theater director; he also takes a strong interest in the newest literature from Europe. A kind of well-meaning renaissance ruler, transferred in time and space to the fin-de-siècle Saint-Jacques.
But even on a tropical island paradise not all is well. The count’s oldest daughter falls in love with a do-no-good whose identity is only revealed later; the oldest son falls in love with Berthe; and the arrival of a new Governor of Saint-Jacques from France, a man with considerably different views on politics and a few other things as the Count, trigger the threat of some serious trouble brewing on the island. All is overshadowed by the increasing activities of the volcano towering over Saint-Jacques…
In order to calm down the political tension and reconcile with his opponent, the new Governor, the Count invites for a big carneval celebration that is meticulously planned. And indeed, in the light of the relaxed atmosphere of the Mardi gras, both opponents seem to admit that maybe they thought wrong about their rival; but during the feast, things are happening that put more than one serious threat to the island and the well-being of the Serindan family. (I don’t want to spoil the story by telling too much.)
I have mixed feelings about the book. Leigh Fermor is one of my favorite writers of travel books. Also in this book he shows his excellent craftsmanship on many pages and in many details. The story is exciting, interesting and lively. The characters, especially Berthe and the Count will stay a long time with the reader. The setting on a tropical island and the description of a culture with which most readers will not be familiar, adds to the reader’s entertainment.
Nevertheless, I had two problems with the book.
First – and this is the smaller problem – it was a bit too much for me: political crisis; threatening duel; secret love affair with kidnapping; suicide threat because of unhappy love; the lepers that turn up during the feast and almost provoke a disaster; the threatening volcano. I would have gladly done without one or two of these crisis that all culminate at exactly the same moment – and I bet that would have considerably added to the credibility of the story. Sometimes less is more and this seems also to include the writing of novels.
Second – and this is the bigger problem -: Leigh Fermor presents us the island as a kind of paradise, a world that is in the state of harmony, where more or less everything is in the right place (at least until the arrival of the new Governor).
But let us have a look at the real society of the Creole Caribbean islands at the beginning of the 20th century. The huge majority of the population was excluded from any rights to master their fate and to participate in the nominally democratic elections. Although de jure abolished, de facto the situation of the negro workers was a kind of slavery; and they lived usually in great misery. The picture that Leigh Fermor is presenting us is that of a reactionary imperialist: the paternalistic landowner provides entertainment and alcohol to his black subjects – and they are happy and adore him. For Leigh Fermor this is how life should look like and it is with obvious nostalghia with which he is describing this orientalist fantasy (interracial sex by mutual agreement included – the reality usually looked very different).
Having an oppressor who shows some human decency, reads books, loves music and is a theater addict, like the Count, doesn’t make an oppressive imperialist society any better. Leigh Fermor was a man with conservative, if not reactionary ideas about society. It shows fortunately not (or not much) in his travel books. But it flaws his otherwise very entertaining novel considerably.
Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Violins of Saint-Jacques, John Murray 2008
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