Can one fly in French?
“One man’s quest for a more meaningful life”, the subtitle, basically sets you up with an expectation for a drug induced man’s journey into spirituality, with his eventual transformation into a drug induced guru. Thankfully this is not the case. Michael Wright, the one within the novel, a theatre critic in his late thirties, chooses to up and leave London, in the pursuit for a simpler way of life that would make him the man he always dreamt of being. After reviewing yet another adaptation of Macbeth, he knew it to be his time to leave. Michael’s past is full of boarding schools, journeys, dreams of being a fighter jet pilot, and France; and it is the latter that he chooses to travel to in his present in order to perhaps fulfill his need to come into his own, as a man. This, of course, is hardly a success, for he soon realises that manual labour is for the most part, well, manual. “La Folie” is the house (if you could call it that), that he eventually chooses to live in, on a solitary hilltop, at the end of the world (as the French would say), near a town called Jolibois, which he suggests to the reader , could have several incarnations “waiting to be explored and appreciated, all over France.”
While an elegy for a simpler time, and, perhaps, a lost England, this book doesn’t appear as naive. What it does instead is place one’s “towny”, city-mentality, in the rickety fixture of La Folie in order to slow time, not enough to stop it altogether, but enough to be finally able to understand the value of time itself. There is a cat, a few brave chicken, and eventually a few <g data-gr-id="54">ouessants</g> (<g data-gr-id="55">pigmy</g> sheep), to accompany Michael through his adventures in his new life, and they form the backbone to his narrative. Every turn, and choice that the protagonist in Michael’s story makes, revolves around his companions. There is something deeply satisfying in the care displayed in the story for them, which is why each loss, takes its toll on the reader, as, and when, they do take place. The book pays homage to the lost lives, not only within the narrative <g data-gr-id="66">itself,</g> but with photographs at the end of the book, on the last page, memorialising the loss of the loved ones. As Michael puts it in the book: “Creatures I barely knew, and yet whose deaths have hit me harder than I would have believed. I’ve come to France to learn to be tough, and what I’m discovering is that I’m, less tough than I ever imagined.”
Strangely enough I came across Michael’s book quite by accident (as often these things tend to happen), at the recent Delhi Book Fair being sold for a quarter of its price, and it reached me at just the right moment. A friend of mine used to say, that sometimes you meet a book at the wrong time, and it isn’t meant to be. Just like the people who come in, and walk out, of one’s life, this book has reached me just at the right time, and opened a whole new space for me, a whole new me to be faced. I think I know Michael Wright. That’s the effect this book has had. But why do I tell you this? Isn’t this to be yet another review of a book? Shouldn’t I leave out the personal? Michael would probably not agree. It is the personal itself, <g data-gr-id="80">the you</g> that is affected, at its lowest, at its most ecstatic, or otherwise, that needs to be memorialised. The personal, in this way, permeates through the book. One laughs out loud (<g data-gr-id="83">lols</g>?), and is fit into a somber silence throughout the space of the book, as he begins to settle into his new life.
Eventually his plane, and his <g data-gr-id="77">piano,</g> reaches his new house, and it begins to resemble the semblance of a home. When he flies his Luscombe from England to France, we transition into a sense of coming to completion; and as more of his former life is transported into La Folie, it is this transition that changes the course of Michael’s <g data-gr-id="72">self reflection</g>, <g data-gr-id="73">and therefore</g> our own. Spaces, and <g data-gr-id="70">things,</g> have <g data-gr-id="69">meaning</g>. A grandfather’s former occupation of a rocking chair in a corner of a house leaves its own kind of imprint. One doesn’t part with that chair, all that easily, and it is their trace(s) that proves to be harder to let go off, than the people themselves, and in some strange, perhaps twisted, way they continue to live on. La Folie was occupied before, and is again, now with yet another British man moving into rural France, each becoming the space, the space becoming them.
The hero one assumes, comes from cinema, from the gunslinging, shirt ripping, villain bashing larger than life figure, but in this book, Michael presents a different kind altogether: “I have in mind a quieter kind of hero. Someone you almost don’t notice when you pass them in the street. The kind of person who, through the way he or she lives his life – bravely and simply and openly – can somehow be a force for good.” This is the hero he aspires to be, and from the way in which the book ends, succeeds in transforming into. His mother would ask him time and again, during their phone calls, if he had started dreaming in French yet? Somehow, that was the rite of passage in his family of having lived in France, instead of a Jules Vernesque stamp-on-passport. The one way that language and flight come together in this book, for me, however, <g data-gr-id="61">is in</g> the moment he flies his Luscombe 6500 feet above this new French rural landscape. It is here that one begins to realise the answer that lies in the question with which this review is titled, and exclaims: “voila, <g data-gr-id="85">voler</g>!” This last phrase, I found scribbled at the back of the chapter titled “High Flight” in my now worn out copy of the book. It looks like my handwriting, but I really don’t remember having written them down. Maybe, just maybe, I dreamt in French.