A Shepherd’s Tale
by Ernst Wiechert
Translated from German by Sylvaine Duclos
Typhoon Editions, 116 p., €15.90
Little known in France, the German-language writer Ernst Wiechert was born in 1887 in East Prussia (now Poland), author of books that sold millions of copies between 1930 and 1950. His humanist commitment, rooted in a Christian education, has took the form of passive resistance to National Socialism, illustrated by the “internal emigration” advocated by many German intellectuals by choosing not to go into exile.
The novel retranslated today (1) allows us to discover his work strongly marked by the celebration of nature and its contrast with the destructive fury of wars. Himself the son of a forest ranger, who became a German officer very marked by the First World War, Ernst Wiechert has made this story of a lumberjack’s son a tale with universal accents, bewitching by the beauty of its descriptions, the softness of his writing, the serenity of his paintings, however serious.
It follows the young life of Michaël, “son of a widow” watched with compassion by the villagers since the death of the father, crushed by a tree before his eyes. This community is run by archetypal figures and their businesses – the teacher, the mayor… Michaël gradually takes his unique place there, first keeping the geese then, promoted to shepherd of the motley flock of the village, he takes to graze every day cows and calves, sheep, goats, and the mayor’s bull, Bismarck, “king of the stables”. And he defends them against the shepherd of the neighboring lands, by the sheer skill of his sling.
His bravery therefore reminds everyone of the biblical bravery of the young David in the face of Goliath, of those “distant times when royal dignity could still rest on a shepherd’s forehead”. “The village of Michaël had always emerged victorious from all the fights, from all the confrontations, from all the struggles. In its history, the pasture of the forest shone with no less luster than, in the history of the great vanished peoples, the plain of Troy or the Catalan fields. »
Primary school comrades are destined for studies, do not roam the pastures like the freedom-loving young shepherd, but they find him during the holidays, eager to take from him a wisdom which seems to them far superior to that of books, on fraternal days forming a twilight they ignore. These young people evoke the memory of other Ernst Wiechert characters, such as those of Jeromine children, children of the small village of Sowirog confronted with the rise of Nazism. War is never far away here either; a war whose explosions are felt as if by anticipation, in the thrill of a happiness whose extreme fragility we sense.
The beauty of this stretched time, of these simple moments of communion with nature hugs the heart, pointing to the day when Michael will once again have to preserve his flock against enemies from far beyond. “For the herd was not only the pride of the village, its wealth and, however modest it may be, its glory, the herd was the village itself, it was its deepest being, it was like the smell of the roofs of thatch, the smoke from the chimneys, the scent of the lime trees in the cemetery. He was something that could not be compared to anything and that could not, in any way, be separated from the native soil. »