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buried treasures

One of my favourite books belongs to a time-honoured, yet oh-so-unfortunately-zeitgeistful literary micro-genre, the plague novel.

Among the great inventions of infection are Albert Camus's The Plague, Gabriel García Márquez's wondrous Love in the Time of Cholera and Jose Saramago's Blindness.

As well, Camus, Boccaccio and Petrarch, Pushkin and Chaucer were all inspired by the ravages of the Black Death, and most writers in the genre owe a debt to Daniel Defoe's 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year.

Meanwhile, the germ that will become the definitive SARS novel or the great H1N1 romance remains latent on somebody's hard drive somewhere.

Published in 1951, The Horseman on the Roof ( Le Hussard sur le toit) is a delicately written, rollicking and profound masterwork by Jean Giono, a French writer born in Provence. Giono wrote dozens of other novels, collections of poetry and plays, and died in 1970. This novel describes the experiences of Angelo, a young Italian noble who had been banished from Italy to France after a duel, and who passes through cholera-stricken Provence on his way back home.

The great, giddy delight of this book lies in its shameless buckling of swashes, its joyous derring-do. Add to that an unexpected but pervasive humour, conveyed mostly through the dissonance between the hero's idealistic way of thinking and his rather foolish aspect (but as we come to see, his commitment to his ideals is deeper than one supposes at the outset).

Angelo, you see, is a young fop, an aristocrat with a purchased army rank who nevertheless believes in the great virtues of courage and loyalty. The humour comes out through his awkward, wordy, contradictory, overweening but endearing internal monologues:

"But I'm up to my neck debating with myself problems of such difficulty that it would be a great relief to be attacked by some really determined cutthroats, out for my purse and with no chance of avoiding the galleys or even the guillotine except by desperately threatening my life. I think I'd take them on with real joy, even on that little narrow staircase I see over there - though it would make swordplay difficult."

Yes, he's a blowhard. But like that other boastful military aristocrat, Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, Angelo has a good heart, genuine courage and, most of all, a profound sense of humanity.

The book's "where" is stated, and painstakingly described. The action takes place in villages and the same searingly bright, almost hallucinogenic landscape that drove Vincent van Gogh off his rocker. But "when" is less clear. Although the talk of duels and cholera, and much description of humble peasants, leads one to imagine a medieval or Renaissance setting, anachronisms like modern colloquial language and the odd mention of a steam engine confuse the issue and give the story a nice edge. Jean-Paul Rappeneau's 1995 film based on the book, with Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez, explicitly sets it during the 1832 cholera epidemic in France, which seems plausible.

Most of all, the humorous, self-analytical tone that characterizes Angelo's many internal monologues suggests a distinctly modern sensibility, and the essentially humanist considerations in the book are very similar to Camus's 1947 novel.

"Night encouraged selfishness. People brought their dead down into the street and threw them on to the pavement," we read. Then: "'Did they love one another?' said Angelo. 'Lord, no,' said the nun. 'In a town like this, though, there are surely people who loved one another?' 'No, no,' said the nun."

The Horseman on the Roof has had its indelible effect on me, I think, because of Angelo's brave, generous, romantic, insane belief in putting your life on the line for others. That generosity is conveyed through the language of the book itself too. My book (may I call it mine?) is clear, humorous and meticulously attentive to the balance and rhythm of sentences, and also to precise, never flabby description. Such care makes you feel the benevolent presence of the author as he registers and records the beauty and sorrow of the world. Here is an example of the writing, an early impression of the scorching, unearthly landscape where most of the story will take place:

"Clouds of dust, smoke, or mist, exhaled by the earth under the beating of the sun, were beginning to rise here and there, from stubble where the harvest had already been gathered, from little flame-coloured hayfields, and even from the forests, where one could feel the heat frying the last fresh blade of grass."

And I have yet to really address the epidemic that dominates the book. Giono's descriptions of the truly revolting effects of cholera are perfectly precise and nausea-inducing. Time and again, a seemingly innocent scene is revealed to be full of horror. Time and again, we watch as reckless Angelo rubs the cold, blue limbs of dying strangers in the hopes of saving their lives.

Equally awful is the suspense as you wonder who will be struck next. Angelo meets people who risk their lives for others, and he meets many more whom fear has hardened and rendered callous. Both kinds of people suffer the same fate. When he meets Pauline, who you just know is to be his own true love, the dénouement is set in motion as we wonder in agony: Will she live?

Henry Miller, quoted on the back of my copy, has it right when he says, "In Giono's work what every sensitive, full-blooded individual ought to be able to recognize at once is 'the song of the world.'"

Carlyn Zwarenstein is a Toronto writer, book reviewer and hypochondriac.