Over-intellectual, abstract… I sighed when I heard the Prix Goncourt 2012 had gone to a novel about student philosophers who decide to run a bar in Corsica–and that the bar will meet the fate of Rome falling to the barbarians in 430, as commented by Saint Augustine. Now I recognize that Saint Augustine is today’s intellectual darling. But how can Ferrari give us a ripping yarn, a rich tapestry of characters, events and denouements with fatalistic villagers, charcuterie producers, bar stops and sleep-around serveuses set to Saint Augustine’s sermons?
With infinite finesse the author transcends clichés and the lazy stock images. The novel moves from Corsica in the aftermath of the first World War to the present, showing the constant of its inhabitants’ lives, the fatal moon pull exerted by ‘le pays’. Still today most Corsicans face a Cornelian choice: leave the family, the village, the island–or stay? Families are either immured or dislocated. Ferrari weaves in a grandfather who took the only escape route, colonial service, with its repressive repercussions for both the colony and the individual. His characters know they are doomed, but alternate between vodka (the bar owners, enlightened, have banned pastis) and lucidity. They are droll as they teeter on the ledge of pathos. Until the barbarian charge results in a stomach-churning fracture on the rocks below.
Ferrari paints the most subtle, the most poignant picture of Corsica, so intimate you want at times to avert your eyes, so cruel that you wince. The writing is sublime, incisive, moving in Proustian cadences, weaving universal truths in and through authentic voices.
Non-French readers: sorry you will have to wait. Hurry, publisher Babel, to find a translator who knows Corsica intimately and who can do justice to the exquisite style of this masterpiece.
Oh yes, and guess what, I have become quite swept up in, and by, Saint Augustine…
Note: The book has been published in English as The Sermon on the Fall of Rome, translated by Geoffrey Strachan.