Devils and Saints by Jean-Baptiste Andrea

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Translated by Sam Taylor

Reviewed by Harriet

You know me. Just think, and you’ll remember. The old man who plays those public pianos that you see in various transport hubs. On Thursdays I’m at Orly, and on Friday at Charles-de-Gaulle. The rest of the week I play in train stations, other airports, anywhere I can find a piano. I can often be heard at the Gare de Lyon because I live nearby. You have probably heard me more than once before.

This is Joe, or Joseph. His playing is superb – always Beethoven – and people often ask him what he’s doing wasting his talent in a place like this when he could be playing in concert halls. Sometimes he’s offered large sums of money to play at someone’s dinner party or birthday, but he always refuses. He’s waiting for someone but he never tells you who it is. But this time, ‘I’m going to have to explain it to you’.

Joseph was born into a wealthy family, who raised him with great love and care. He is having piano lessons from the great Rothenberg, and there are plans to send him to study at the conservatory if he works hard enough. Rothenburg is a hard master, seldom pleased with Joe’s playing, but nevertheless the boy becomes increasingly skilled. But then, on 2 May 1969, ‘I became ill. An incurable disease. Don’t panic, it’s not contagious’. The incurable disease was becoming an orphan, when the plane carrying his parents and sister home from a holiday burst into flames, killing everyone on board. And, despite his parents’ wealth, he’s sent to an orphanage in the Pyrenees, Les Confins. Here, the vulnerable boys are subjected to daily humiliation and vicious punishment under the hands of Father Sénac, otherwise The Toad, and Joe is no exception. 

But two things make his life a little less unbearable. There’s an old piano in the orphanage, and one day the establishment’s wealthy patron hears Joe’s playing (actually, of course, against the rules) and arranges for him to come once a week to give lessons to his daughter. The two teenagers loathe each other, but at least Joe gets out and can sometimes play on a better instrument. And, after many miserable weeks, he manages to join a secret group at Les Confins – it’s called The Lookout, and the boys meet at night on the roof of the building. There are five of them, and they have a secret homemade radio, on which they listen to nightly broadcasts by their heroine, presenter Marie-Ange Roeg. They are sure she would rescue them if they could only get a message to her. Meanwhile they dream of escape, though Danny, the only boy who ever tried it, apparently died in the attempt. Will they ever get out?

Jean Baptiste Andrea grew up in Cannes and started his career as a filmmaker, before turning to novels in 2017, and one episode in particular in this novel is very exciting and nail-bitingly cinematic. In a Guardian interview about his films, Andrea said ‘I love movies that make me dream’, and there’s a certain dreamlike quality about his beautiful, lyrical writing here. The novel deals with some hard issues, not least the appalling sadism of Father Sénac and his minions; even the nuns who teach the orphans are not exempt:

Occasionally a novice would appear, a fresh convert never seen by any of us before, and trembling at her sacrifice. It never took long, however, for these new recruits to develop the hard-eyed stare that characterised true faith. Some of the nuns, such as Angelique, were kinder to us. But we did not delude ourselves. If Sénac had announced that all the orphans in the building were possessed by demons, the sisters would have poured petrol over us without a moment’s hesitation, then fought each other to be first to the matches.

But despite the undoubted suffering of Joe and his comrades, this is not a novel of unrelieved misery. On the contrary, it is tender, funny, and moving, celebrating companionship, and hope, and love. The novel has deservedly won many awards, including the prestigious Grand Prix RTL Lire in 2022. I’m very pleased to have had a chance to read it, especially as it has been impeccably translated by Sam Taylor – I’m a terrible fusspot about the quality of translations from the French, notoriously a difficult language to get to sound natural in English, but Taylor does a terrific job, as he did with the two of Leila Slimani’s novels I reviewed on Shiny [here and here].  This is the first of Andrea’s novels I’ve read, but I’ll be seeking out some more in the near future.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Jean-Baptiste Andrea, Devils and Saints, trans. Sam Taylor (Gallic Books, 2022). 978-1913547295, paperback original. 

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February is #ReadIndies Month, hosted for the third year by Shiny reviewers Karen Langley and Lizzie Siddal.