Fiction based on historical events, or ‘faction’ as I believe it can be called, is something that appeals to me but all the more when it’s on the a smaller scale. We are often given fictional accounts of wars and the bigger things, which are all well and good, but occasionally it’s the lesser known stories, often the more bizarre, that tends to capture my imagination. It’s like when you are told old family tales which you just couldn’t imagine happening, we all have one don’t we, for example there was my great-great aunty Betty who after not visiting her husband’s grave for several years turned up to discover another woman was buried with him where she was meant to go one day. It’s these true yet unbelievable tales that can be the most appealing because they seem stranger than fiction. In the case of ‘Eat Him If You Like’ Jean Teulé gives us not a dark family tale but one of a whole village that seemed to turn mad one summer day.
‘Eat Him If You Like’ fictionalises the true events which took place on the 16th of August 1870 when the town of Hautefaye collectively seemed to lose their minds. The village was having one of its regular fairs when there was some misunderstanding between the locals and Alain de Moneys and his cousin the Vicomte Camille Maillard Lafaye who was reported to have said something negative about the current state of the war between France and Prussia. Camille managed to flee the scene and so the villagers turned on Alain and subjected him to horrific torture before burning him alive and eating him.
Here you may think I have given too much away, but the blurb says all this on the back of the book, and it is the situation, how it happened and the outcome that made me want to read about it; and what happens after the horrific event is indeed grimly fascinating (along with the fact that I thought Jean Teulé’s novel ‘The Suicide Shop’ was a brilliant black comedy and had wanted to read more by him).
In fact ‘grimly fascinating’ really sums up ‘Eat Him If You Like’ because it is possibly one of the goriest tales I have read in some time. I have quite a hardened stomach and there were two moments in this novella that I both squirmed and actually felt slightly unwell. Yet these events actually happened, so this isn’t an author using the horrific to shock, he uses it to make a point and to really show just how awful the events happened and how a simple misunderstanding can become something so horrendous and how people will pin blame and follower a leader without thinking things through.
‘Now now, my friends, what’s going on?’ said Alain, limping towards them.
‘It’s your cousin,’ explained a pedlar. ‘He shouted, “Long live Prussia!”’
‘What? No! Come now, I was standing just here, and that’s not what I heard at all! And I know de Maillard well enough to be sure he would never say such a thing. “Long live Prussia”? That’s almost as ridiculous as shouting “Down with France!”’
‘What did you just say?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘You said “Down with France!”’
‘What? No, of course I didn’t!’
‘Yes, you did! You said “Down with France!”’
As well as being horrific this novel is also rather moving, and indeed in parts very funny – I had this same reaction to ‘The Suicide Shop’ if I remember rightly. Teulé gets us into the head of Alain ery quickly, we learn he is a sweet, possibly a little too innocent, young man who was doing much for his local community and helping the villagers and indeed village of Hautefaye in many ways. Hence why what follows is made all the more shocking and saddening as people he helped seem to forget all that in favour of the heightened drama. Teulé also uses this to humorous effect, for example when Alain is being dragged through the street with people throwing rocks at his head and screaming he is an evil Prussian, Teulé writes that his victim of circumstance dreamily ponders that he ‘had never had a nickname before, but it seemed like this one was sticking.’ Well, it made me laugh anyway.
Despite the initial funny moments overall Teulé manages to build up a sense of Alain as a person, the heightened political tensions of the time and the villagers and the atmosphere of a village in the middle of nowhere. As he does this he builds a real sense of impending dread and doom before suddenly the true horrors are unleashed. This, as I mention before, is all done for a reason, as by the end I found myself incredibly moved by the unfairness of Alain’s tale and circumstance, shocked people could actually have done such a thing and a sense of the loss of a village who have to deal with what they have done in what was an incredibly long moment of madness.
‘Eat Him If You Like’ is a beguilingly small book for all it achieves. If you are rather faint hearted then it might not be advisable to pick this up, however if you are made of sterner stuff this is a novella I would certainly recommend it makes you feel uncomfortable for all the right reasons, in fact I found myself watching the news and thinking ‘have we actually moved on from this mentality in some ways, isn’t this very thing still happening now?’ A thought provoking novella and one that shows a superb author keen to tell a tale that we can learn from.