KR Reviews

On Hunting Party by Agnés Desarthe

Translated by Christiana Hills. Los Angeles, CA: Unnamed Press, 2018. 163 pages. $17.00.

Hunting Party begins with the first-person narration of a rabbit, a common, unnamed rabbit, explaining the limits of his animal life. “Late, late, we’re always too late,” it laments (in deliberate jest, surely). After the initial chapter, the book turns to third-person narration, and the rabbit becomes a guide and companion to Tristan, the main (human) character. The rabbit seems wise beyond its species and bears enormous contempt for the silliness of humans. After dismissing the idea of “father” as a needless one, it notes: “Where I come from, there are no rules. We don’t need them. Instinct, good luck, and bad luck are the three pillars of our miserable existence.”

Such philosophical exposition in a novel is uncommon, especially for a novel so short. But this is no ordinary novel. The structure is simple as can be: four men, the hunting party of the title, go into the woods, and two disasters befall them. First, the loudest, most masculine member of the party, Dumestre, falls into a hole from which no one can retrieve him, and Tristan drops in as well to keep him safe. The second disaster, a thunderstorm of hurricane force, is village-wide, and the novel turns to Tristan’s wife, a schoolteacher, a passing turtledove, various unattributed speakers. Despite the provincial nature of these disasters and the populace experiencing them, the novel’s scope encompasses species-wide heartaches and consequences. The book considers the pitfalls of human companionship, when it explores Tristan and his wife, Emma; the consequences of being a misfit well into adulthood, when it delves into Tristan’s sensitive nature; and the mortal penalties of ordinary actions, when it considers the reason for Tristan’s mother’s death, or the car keys forgotten in Dumestre’s pocket.

In order to keep his injured human companion occupied, Tristan tells stories. “Get me out of this, tell me a story, light a fire, light a cigarette, tell me I’m not going to die, find shelter,” Tristan muses to himself. As if a story is survival. Stories pile upon stories until Tristan unpacks his entire personal history, and Dumestre reveals secrets of his own. Tristan explains how he nursed his distinctly unmaternal mother through a terrible, fatal illness; when he moved away from France to work and live, he became embroiled in misunderstandings, and people took advantage of his quiet, passive nature. Dumestre, a boor, nevertheless has a complex inner life. The author nudges the reader to feel deeply for him while keeping ever-present the point that he is a dreadful man, a liar and a bully. Stories, the telling and the hearing, keep Dumestre alive, and restore both his good humor and his cruelty.

Throughout all of this, Desarthe’s graceful and illuminating prose dances across the page, weaving one perspective with another, evoking common human experiences poetically. In this passage, for instance, the narrator isn’t exactly Tristan or the rabbit, but the lyric narrative consciousness is consistent with either creature.

The absence of light has transformed into cotton wool. At first, the eyes strain, searching for a hint of brightness, waiting for the moment when the pupil has sufficiently dilated and the optic nerve can send new information back to the brain: no, it’s not completely black. A feeling from childhood. Awoken from a dream, a nightmare, you open your blind eyes. Where are you? Where did the room go? Where has the world gone? But the iris retracts and the scenery is repainted with the gray paintbrush of the moon, the yellow paintbrush of the street light on the corner, the red paintbrush of the flickering sign. The night is filled with colors.

Part of the credit for this lovely book is due to its translator, Christiana Hills. At certain points in the book, Desarthe gestures to a quality of the French language, and these moments must have been difficult to realize in English without awkwardness. For example, the rabbit tries to lecture Tristan on the importance of fur, and how silly it is that humans have discarded it:

Take the word for “fur” in French. Pelage. The word itself is soft. And for what reason do you think you can hear in it, like an echo, like its root, the French word peau, for skin? Precisely because hair is born in skin . . .

This passage must have looked very different in French, but the point comes across beautifully in English nonetheless. Other elements of the novel don’t translate quite as well. To English-speakers, a book in which rabbits have consciousness and communication on par with humans is likely to evoke Watership Down. But this book has nothing at all in common with that one. Rabbit society in Hunting Party does not imitate or make an allegory of human society; it is the world of the wild, and the rabbit’s perspective, though arrogant, contrasts wildly with Tristan’s.

No book is without flaws, but few come to mind in considering Hunting Party. It’s not a grand, Melvillean story, to be sure, and many readers will not find greatness in small things. The characters mostly escape the novel’s ordeals without permanent harm—even the rabbit survives—and that feels a little easy. But Desarthe has written a marvelously compressed work of fiction that nimbly reveals memorable characters, considers big issues thoughtfully, and even upends expectations about what supernaturally “speaking” animals will have to say. As such, she has created a minor miracle of a book.

And throughout it all, the primacy of storytelling is Desarthe’s focus. Even though the characters are unforgettably complex, the idea of storytelling as a peak human endeavor is what repeatedly brings the book into focus.

He wants to continue his story. He has to distract Dumestre. He tells the story because he’s endowed with speech, true speech, and intelligence as well, real intelligence. He speaks, rather than dancing naked in the rain, because he hasn’t spent millions of years evolving with persistence and tenacity in order to behave like an animal.

Without storytelling as patient as Tristan’s, and Desarthe’s, stories worth telling could not continue to be passed down across our history. So much would be lost. Hunting Party is a testament to the levees created against such losses, to the importance of the stories we tell each other in the dark.

Katharine Coldiron
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com and tweets @ferrifrigida.