There are so many different ways to write about war. Some novels focus on the experience of the soldier, some will focus on what the civilians go through, some move back and forth between the front lines and the home front. While Jean Giono’s Le grand troupeau – To the Slaughterhouse does move back and forth, the book is still completely different from anything else that I have read so far.
Giono’s technique does need some getting used to. What he describes is equally beautiful and horrifying. The result may very well be one of the most radical anti-war books that I have read.
If you are looking for an action-driven novel, this isn’t one to turn to, Giono’s novel is far more like the description of paintings. I was reminded of Otto Dix’ WWI paintings more than once. Some of the very visual descriptions in this novel are as graphic and gruesome as Dix’ work.
The war has come to a little village in the French Provence region. All the men are drafted and go to war, leaving the women, old men, children and animals behind. Some of the men are shepherds. They have to abandon their herds. Left on their own, the animals are endangered, they have accidents, get wounded. One day a massive herd enters the village. It’s an awful sight. So much suffering, so much pain.
Julia’s husband Joseph has gone to war, as has her sister-in-law’s young lover, Olivier. The story moves back and froth between life in the village and the men. It’s more a series of pictures than a real story. Very powerful and graphic pictures.
Giono chose to show us how war affects the body. It’s not the fighting he is interested in but what happens when someone is wounded. How the wounds fester, how the juices flow out the dead bodies. The rats which are always mentioned in WWI novels are present here as well but we see how they eat the faces of the dead men.
I had a faint feeling in my stomach for most of the time while reading but I saw what he wanted to achieve and I thought the idea was amazing. He didn’t stop at describing the horrors of the war and what it did to the bodies of the men, he described the beauty as well. The scents in the air, the taste of food, the beauty of the landscape.
There are hunting scenes and scenes of slaughter and the bodies of the dead animals resemble those of the dead and wounded men.
Human beings and animals both suffer pain, their bodies are vulnerable and frail, they can be killed and harmed and wounded and the result will be the same. At one point he goes one step farther, describing how the earth suffers too, when her body is ripped open by explosives. Giono includes the entirety of creation in his novel and shows that every being existing in this world, wants beauty, love and tenderness, shelter and food and when this is not provided, when aggression is let loose, the body is harmed, wounded and the being ultimately dies.
It’s a highly symbolical novel, with a profound message of peace. It was hard to read but I am glad I did. It really would be hard to find a more eloquent anti-war statement and a book which manages like this one, to show, that since we all, animals and human beings alike, suffer pain, we are equal. This profound message makes To the Slaughterhouse not only a plea for human rights but for animal rights as well.
To the Slaughterhouse is my fourth contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.