“Those were happy times, Bruno. That’s how I fell in love with my Annette, treading the grapes together.” – The Dark Vineyard, by Martin Walker
Every once in a while, a book transports you so vividly to a particular time or place that you feel a real sense of loss at its conclusion. This just happened to me as I finished The Dark Vineyard by Martin Walker. This novel’s evocation of life in the Perigord region of southwestern France is so vivid, so captivating, that I felt as though I were right there. Actually I really want to be there – and now. Put me on a plane at once!
Mais non – this is a dream that will have to wait…
As the novel begins, Bruno Courreges, Chief of Police in the village of Saint-Denis, is investigating a fire at an agricultural research station. The research involved GMO’s – genetically modified organisms from which genetically modified foods are derived. There’s plenty of ill will in the village on this subject. In addition, there’s something mysterious about this operation. The obvious question: was the fire deliberately set?
Not long after this conflagration, two deaths occur in Saint-Denis. One is almost certainly due to natural causes, but the other is more suspicious. And not only that: it is a loss of life that could only have occurred in a place where wine is produced.
Quite honestly, the criminal investigation was, for me, the least interesting aspect of this book. This is not to impugn the character of Bruno Courreges, an enormously appealing creation. With his deep knowledge of, and loyalty to, the denizens of Saint-Denis, he puts me in mind of Constable Hamish Macbeth of the village of Lochdubh, in the Scottish highlands. (And thanks due to M.C. Beaton for that delightful series!)
Where The Dark Vineyard really triumphs is in its depiction of a vibrant culture deep in the heart of “La France Profonde.” As you might expect, wine making and wine tasting are central to that culture. In one scene, the villagers tread the grapes as their ancestors did.The vendange becomes an occasion for celebration as well as a spur to romantic impulses. (The birth rate usually goes up ninth months later!)
A cave is an underground wine cellar. The cave of Hubert de Montignac, the pride of Saint-Denis, is one of Bruno’s favorite places:
Directly ahead lay Hubert’s own wines, which were the source of his success. He had started by blending the wines of local growers into his own brand of Bergerac whites, reds, and roses. Then he’d bought a small vineyard near the castle of Monbazillac to produce his version of the sweet and golden dessert wine….To the right lay the seat of the cave’s reputation, row upon row of the finest wines Bordeaux, year after year after year of Latours and Lafites, Cheval Blanc and Angelus, and the famous unbroken run of Chateau Petrus. To the left was what was said to be one of the finest selection of malt whiskies outside Scotland and one of the best collections of vintage Armagnacs in France.
Thirsty yet? But wait – Saint-Denis has more to boast of. Weekly markets are still a staple of French villages. Bruno is proud of the fact that Saint-Denis has two such markets. One was founded by a prefect of Napoleon’s in 1807. The other was granted by a royal charter in 1347 and has been held every Tuesday since then.
The culture of wine harmonizes with the culture of fine cuisine – not just at upscale restaurants but also in people’s homes. (Among his other virtues, Bruno is a terrific cook.) Be warned, though: some of the local culinary customs are, to say the least startling. For example: in one scene, becasse, a species of woodcock considered a delicacy, is served up grilled for the guests at a banquet. One of these announces that she is about to devour her favorite part of the becasse:
She neatly severed the charred head of the bird from the remains of its body, and then picked it up by the beak. She put the head of the bird into her mouth and cracked the thin skull, tossed the beak back into the plate and chewed with evident pleasure.
According to Tom’s Wine Line, the French consider les becasses to be “the epitome of game birds.”
Hunting these little guys is a favorite local pastime. Bruno does it with the help of his hunting dog, a basset hound named Gigi whom I immediately coveted.
In this realistic rather than idealistic portrayal, certain individuals in Saint-Denis are shown to be vulnerable to the same dark impulses that prey on the rest of humanity. Incomers and tourists create friction with the locals. The village as a whole struggles with corporate and international pressures as it fights to retain its unique identity.
Still, Martin Walker’s respect and love for French country life shine through on every page of his book. Likewise his deep knowledge of the land and its people. Toward the novel’s conclusion, a veteran and Resistance fighter is laid to rest with all due ceremony. This scene had me close to tears.
Here’s a faded tourist poster glimpsed by Bruno:
The top half depicted the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux and the lower half an idyllic view of the valley from the ridge above Saint-Denis. Between them was the phrase “Valley of the Vezere, cradle of mankind for 40,000 years.” Whole civilizations and nations, monarchies and cultures, had come and gone.
Born in Durham, in the north of England, Martin Walker earned his M.A. at Balliol College, Oxford. He wrote for the Guardian for twenty-five years, during which time he served, among other things, as that news organization’s Bureau Chief in Moscow. He presented Martin Walker’s Russia and Clintonomics on BBC TV, and he has also authored several works of nonfiction. With his wife Julia Watson, Walker now lives primarily in Washington DC, spending summers in their house in the Dordogne.
The Dark Vineyard is the second novel in the series featuring Bruno, Chief of Police. In his Acknowledgments, Martin Walker states that ” this book once again owes everything to the kindness and generosity of the people of Perigord and the splendid way of life they and their ancestors have devised over thousands of years.”
For a closer look at all things Bruno-related – the series, the setting, the author, and of course, the character – click here.
I absolutely loved this book.
For a closer look at La France Profonde, I highly recommend The Discovery of France by Graham Robb.
For me, no music evokes the French countryside like Songs of the Auvergne (Les Chants d’Auvergne) by Joseph Canteloube. Many of us first heard this music when this recording came out in 1983: . I remember thinking that Canteloube’s lushly romantic arrangements of these folk songs were unlike anything I had ever heard in the classical canon. (They still are.)
Here is Dame Kiri singing “Bailero,” from this album.( The songs are in Occitan, a romance language spoken in the south of France and certain other regions of Europe.)