On Henri Bosco’s lovely brief novel, The Child and the River

Last week or maybe the week before last, I received in the mail a review copy of Henri Bosco’s slim 1945 novel The Child and The River. This new translation by Joyce Zonana is available now from publisher NYRB. I picked up The Child and the River this week twice: once before bed, and then again immediately upon waking the next morning, where I finished it before rising.

Set some years before either of the Big Wars, The River and the Child takes place in the countryside somewhere in the south of France (likely Bosco’s native Provence). Narrator Pascalet, now an older man, looks back on a transformational episode in his youth. He relates how as a young boy, he was free to roam the countryside wherever he pleased, excepting the river, where, according to his parents, “there are black holes where you can drown; there are snakes in the reeds and Gypsies on the banks.”

When his parents go on a trip, leaving him in the care of sweet Tante Martine, young Pascalet makes his way to the forbidden river posthaste, blaming any mischief on newly-arrived Spring:

…one fine April morning, temptation caught me unawares. It knew how to speak to me. It was a springtime temptation, one of the sweetest there is, I think, for anyone who is open to clear skies, tender leaves, and newly-blossomed flowers.

That is why I succumbed.

Pascalet’s adventure quickly goes awry, or improves in intensity, depending on how you like to think of it. He falls asleep in an old rowboat, drifts downriver, and ends up on an island inhabited by Gypsies. Hungry, he spies them from behind the brush. Near their cauldron they keep a dog and a bear—and a bound prisoner: “He was a handsome child, sturdy, taller than me and stronger, most likely a Gypsy.” The men in the group beat the young prisoner with a whip, but he endures it. Late in the night, under cover of darkness, Pascalet frees this boy, Gatzo; they then steal a boat and escape to live out a boyhood fantasy of utter freedom—for a few days, at least.

The Child and the River brims with lovely nostalgic pleasures. The boys playact their boyish fantasies, forging crude bows and arrows of reed and pretending that they might have to fend off monsters or “headhunters, cannibals.” Pascalet describes the wonderful sensation of escalating these fantasies:

Then I would feel a mock terror. I enjoyed it. Because when you scare yourself through make-believe, you know well enough that you are not in any danger, but still you are afraid. It is one of the most delicious pleasures.

And yet the boys are not merely playacting—they are surviving: fishing, foraging, strategically moving and mooring their boat to avoid detection. They make fire; they cook. In a lovely little scene, they dig a spring to enjoy fresh water:

We made a hole near a bulge in the clay. Water was seeping through. We continued to dig and fashioned a little basin. Through a breach in the clay, the water moistened a bed of sand. We flattened one side of our hole and stuck in a hollow reed. At first the reed stayed dry. We were aching with impatience, even more than for the fire. At long last, a droplet formed and grew round; for a long time, it hung, uncertain. Suddenly it fell. Another drop came, and slowly, at the tip of the green reed, the spring was born.

This passage exemplifies the simple precision of Bosco’s prose via Zonana’s clean, clear translation. The joy of The Child and the River comes from Pascalet’s gentle, limpid observations of his time on the river, which are generally free of intrusive, muddy “adult” meditations. Instead, we experience what the boys experience:

Everywhere, plants and waters, shorelines and trees, came alive at nightfall with a confused, mysterious life. A duck would flap its wings in the reeds; an owl would screech on a black poplar; a brutal badger would rummage in a bush; a weasel, gliding from branch to branch, would cause two or three leaves to tremble lightly; a roving fox would yelp in the distance.

“It is a sad animal,” Gatzo told me. “It is thinking

The adventures of Pascalet and Gatzo culminate in a strange, dreamlike encounter with “the Puppeteer of Souls.” I won’t remark on the episode at any length, only add that it provides a nearly-mystical, memorable climax to the book. I’ll also add that the novel’s last two sentences are some of the sweetest I’ve read in a while.

I loved reading The Child and the River; I loved the feeling of reading it. It took me back to books I’d loved as a child: Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, abridged and bowdlerized versions of Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn, and countless Robinsades. In a letter to a friend, Bosco suggested that The Child and the River was “a novel very good, I think, for children, adolescents, and poets.” Is there a better audience?

The Child and the River is one of two Bosco books in publication now from NYRB; they released Zonana’s translation of his 1948 novel Malicroix in early March of 2020. I have it on my shelf, still unread, but not for long. I hope NYRB and Zonana will do a few more Bosco titles. Recommended.