Towards the end of their adventure, having made their way across 1830s France in the grip of a cholera epidemic, the titular hero’s travelling companion remarks, with a sagacity beyond her years, that the “Gordian knot … strangles men of liberal sentiments.” Jean Giono was no fool.
In fact, the more I think about this book, the more I like him. Published in 1951, Giono sets an exiled Italian Hussar on a journey from France back to his homeland. In doing so, he wrote an early version of current apocalyptic novels. Only better than most. Cholera in the 1830s, it turns out, has a better kill rate than zombies and about three times the quotient of blood and gore (mouth frothing, spasms, blackened skin, projectile diarrhea). Angelo, our rooftop horseman, is a young, bold soldier, handy with a sabre and up for a fight if it means saving a life, particularly that of an attractive young female companion. Add in suspicious French peasants, soldiers trying to keep a lid on travelers spreading disease, nuns, doctors, quarantine stations leading to certain death, and so on and on, and you have a quite a story. What separates it from your average apocalyptic book these days is that Giono could write.
It might be a bit slow moving for some, but if you bear with it and take your time, it’s a rewarding read.