The Unknown Country: The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

December 30, 2007 at 6:55 pm (books, France, History)

discovery.jpg I’m only half way through The Discovery of France, but I feel that I must write about it now. It is not a book that one can rush through; I have no idea when I’ll finish it. For one thing, I have to keep pausing to shake my head in amazement.

It is one of the strangest books I have ever read, filled with anecdotes and tales of a way of life that has been pretty nearly lost to modernity. Despite the paucity of written records, robb_g_.jpg Graham Robb has managed to re-create and animate this complex, extremely obscure world in great detail.

In 1983, Kiri te Kanawa released a recording called Songs of the Auvergne, by Joseph Canteloube. I had never before heard this music, but, like many others at the time, I fell in love with it instantly. One thing surprised me: the Auvergne is a region in central France. Yet these songs were in some strange dialect that bore no resemblance to the French I’d studied in school. It turns out that until quite recently, France was a land of dialects – many of them. Here’s the title Chapter Four of The Discovery of France: “”O Oc Si Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awe Jo Ja Oua.” (I have omitted several diacritical marks.) These are some of the major forms of the word “yes,” as rendered in the various provincial languages.

Robb also informs us that “The Pyrenean village of Aas, at the foot of the Col d’Aubisque, above the spa town of Eax-Bonnes, had its own whistling language which was unknown even in the neighboring valleys until it was mentioned on a television programme in 1959.” We learn that shepherds living in isolation during the long summers developed “an ear-splitting, hundred-decibel language” that could be heard and understood by listeners as far away as two miles. This particular dialect was used during the Second World War by shepherds endeavoring to assist Jewish refugees and others as they crossed over into Spain. Unfortunately, it appears at the present time to be lost: “A few people in Aas today remember hearing the language, but no one can reproduce the sounds and no recordings were ever made.”

In a chapter entitled “Migrants and Commuters,” we learn about the lives of the colporteurs, or pedlars, who, besides traveling with 100-pound baskets or wooden chests strapped to their backs, performed a variety of services for the folk of the villages they passed through: “They pierced ears, extracted teeth and told fortunes. Even after the practice was outlawed in 1756, Bearnese pedlars in Spain castrated boys whose parents hoped to secure them a place in a cathedral choir.”

I haven’t read that extensively in French history and literature, but Robb is writing here about a country I find virtually unrecognizable. Stay tuned for a report on the second half of this remarkable book! Meanwhile, put yourself in the mood with these two soundtrack suggestions:

canteloube.jpg Of course, the aforementioned Les Chants d’ Auvergne, sung by Kiri te Kanawa with Jeffrey Tate conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, on London/Decca;

bizet.jpg L’Arlesienne Suites One and Two, by Georges Bizet. Favorite recording: Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra


  1. Ron Slate said,

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  2. The Discovery of France, revisited and concluded, with a sense of wonder « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] the first part of The Discovery of France, Robb describes the ethnic and linguistic diversity of basically tribal people who in no way […]

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