Sunday, 28 December 2008

ATALA by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand

Christmas Eve I sat down to a dinner of roast turkey, plum cake, and this delicious little novella, and savoured it all thoroughly. I had never heard of Chateaubriand before, but am so glad I found him and picked up his book. It's so different from much of what I read. A lot of the author himself seems to overflow into the story: his religious beliefs, his fascination with the native Americans, and an almost gluttonous devouring of nature. If you are a lover of nature, you too will wolf down - smother yourself - in his luscious descriptions of the American land.

It's an odd, strange little story. A bit Romeo-and-Juliet-ish, but also, not. Atala is the name of a young Indian girl, and the story is told through the words of her love, Chactas. Given my peculiar fascination with all things Native American, I thoroughly loved getting drawn into the story, the ambience, the words. Of course, it's a translation, but even so, I found beautiful lines to hold on to. Here are a few:

"Why do I mourn for you in your cradle of earth, O my newborn? When the little bird becomes big, it must look for its food, and it finds it in the wild bitter seeds. At least you have not known sadness; at least your heart has never been bared to man's destructive breath. The bud which dries up in its encasement passes away with all its perfumes, like you, with all your innocence, O my son! Happy are those who die in the cradle: they have known only the kisses and smiles of a mother."

"Happy are they who have not seen the smoke of the stranger's celebrations and who sit only at the festivities of their fathers! If the bluejay of the Mississippi said to the finch of the Floridas, 'Why do you weep so sadly? Have you not here beautiful waters, refreshing shades, and seeds of every kind as in your forests?' 'Yes,' would reply the finch, 'but my nest is in the jasmine .."

"Take courage, son of Outalissi, rebel not against your fate. The heart of man is like the surge of a river, which sometimes swells with muddy waters when the sky has troubled them. Has the river the right to say, 'I thought there would be no storms and the sun would never be burning hot'?"

"Men, my son, especially those in your country, often imitate nature, and reproductions are always trivial. It is not so with nature, when she seems to be imitating the works of men, she is actually offering models."

".. age, like maternity, is a kind of priesthood."

"It becomes you, young man, hardly grown up, to complain of your misfortunes! Where are the marks of your sufferings? Where are the injustices you have sufered? Where are your virtues, which alone could give you some right to complain? What services have you rendered? What good have you done? Eh? Wretched one, you offer me only your passions, and you dare storm the gates of Heaven!"

"Jealousy crept to the grass altar on which the kid was sacrificed; she ruled under the tent of Abraham .. "

by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand
(1768 - 1848)

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