by Jean-Michel Fortier
La Mèche, 2014
Reading Le chasseur inconnu is like taking a step or two back in time. To a time when people lived in tight-knit village communities and life revolved around the church and a fistful of authority figures. A time when people still had names like Blanche Bienvenu, Armelle Moche, and Albane Simonot. This is literally a timeless tale, though, with temporal references as few and far between as outsiders in the village. There’s something delightfully charming about reading how the village baker (aptly named Michon) sets his loaves out on a windowsill to breathe in the mild spring evening air, and how a mother lets her brood of children roam free-range until all hours, although not everyone approves of her laissez-faire approach to parenting. A strong sense of community unites the villagers, who all gather in church for Sunday mass. Many of them also meet on Monday nights in the parish hall below, which provides a forum for all and sundry to air their dirty laundry. The Monday meeting is one gathering over which the village priest does not preside; he takes his place among the people while the mayor calls the shots.
There’s a certain sense of security in this reclusive village, the only reported crimes being an affair of missing writing implements, initially thought to have been stolen by a young girl but later revealed to have slipped off a desk into a heating grate only to melt to an acrid-smelling death, and a case of stolen bread that is blamed on a forest-dwelling hermit named Ruth, who “speaks a funny language” (English, one might speculate). That is, until one day, when a woman from the village is shot to death, apparently in the woods. Her death is blamed on an unknown hunter, whom the villagers fear is still at large.
Unbeknownst to many villagers, however, some members of the community also attend a secret meeting held on Friday evenings, a cult-like gathering led by a mysterious figure referred to only as “the Teacher.” These select few are the only ones who know the truth—that the dead woman was in fact an unwitting intruder who stumbled upon a secret meeting and was killed by the Teacher—although they themselves are persuaded to turn a blind eye to what they saw and instead come to believe that there was an unknown hunter on the loose.
The events that ensue cause further upset to the villagers’ formerly peaceful existence: a routine dental procedure leads to catastrophic consequences for a local girl, leading to concern and finger-pointing at the weekly meetings, and a newly engaged young couple desert the village under cover of darkness to go live in town, much to the horror of the locals. But what worries the villagers the most is the sudden arrival of a census official, sent by the government to record information about the villagers.
In spite of the sinister threads woven throughout the storyline, there is a generous dollop of humour, too, from subtle plays on words with characters’ names to passages clearly bordering on the absurd. While some readers may see Le chasseur inconnu as a timeless cautionary tale on the dangers of indoctrination and closed-mindedness within a community, others may simply enjoy it as a quirky, old-fashioned romp harkening to the rural Quebec of yesteryear. Either way, it makes for an interesting and entertaining read.