Translated from the French by Roger D Taylor
name is Roger Taylor. I am the author of five
ocean sailing books covering ten of my singlehanded voyages in
tiny self-built yachts, plus a book about the Scottish
sea loch on which I live. As well as writing, I also translate
maritime literature from both French and Russian.
In 2013, at the Festival Livre et Mer at Concarneau in Brittany, to which I had been invited to receive the principal prize, the Prix Henri-Queffélec, for the French edition of my book Mingming & the Art of Minimal Ocean Sailing, I first met Eric Gautier. I bought his books and thus began what has been a decade-long literary love affair. For the past five winters my principal occupation has been translating the 1000-plus pages of Eric’s extraordinary novels. That work - long, hard, challenging, fascinating, at times frustrating, endlessly instructive and always joyful – has now reached its culmination in the simultaneous publication of the two volumes that currently comprise The Adventures of Laforest-Dombourg.
These books are not quick or easy reads. Like all good literature, they demand concentration and commitment, but the ensuing rewards more than justify the effort. They offer total immersion into a different age. The reader is taken uncompromisingly into a new world – the world of eighteenth century France, its ports and villages, its seat of power at Versailles, its Navy, its ships, its internal and external politics, and above all its people, from its common folk and ordinary seamen to its great admirals and the King, Louis XVI, himself. The historical accuracy of Eric Gautier’s work, whether it be describing the back streets of St Malo or life aboard a French ship of the line, or one of the great naval battles of the time, is astonishing. Even tides and weather on a particular day are relayed just as they were.
The narrative is set, then, in a wholly convincing historical context. Almost all the characters, except for the main protagonist - Laforest-Dombourg himself - his family and a handful of others necessary to the story, are drawn directly from history. And what a story it is! If the historical accuracy of the books recalls O’Brian, the storyline is worthy of Dumas in its breadth of conception. In essence it is a long and difficult odyssey of self-discovery, as a young French noble, Pierre-Marie Laforest-Dombourg, orphaned in violent and puzzling circumstances, and enrolled initially as a Cadet officer in the French Navy, undertakes a long and often painful quest to find the truth behind his mother’s kidnap and murder. The quest spans four continents, a string of naval engagements against the Royal Navy, innumerable setbacks and endless twists and turns.
The marvellously constructed narrative brings our young hero into direct contact with many of the great names of eighteenth century French Naval history – men like Laperouse, Lamotte-Picquet, the Comte d’Estaing, and perhaps most memorably, the larger-than-life Provencal Admiral Bailli de Suffren – known affectionately by his men as either God Almighty or the Fat Caulker.
It is a dark tale but illuminated always by the endearing character of Laforest-Dombourg himself. Sometimes naïve, often impetuous, always brave, quick-witted, a peerless but reluctant swordsman, he recalls a more complex, more vulnerable and ultimately more convincing Hornblower. I have lived with him for many years now, and still love him dearly. The character of Laforest-Dombourg is all the more approachable as the narrative is written in the first person, and often in the present tense, creating a vivid immediacy and a deep intimacy with the narrator. The work is not in any way a dull historical tract.
The author, Eric Gautier, was born on the south coast of Brittany, the scene of much of the novel’s action. A retired French Army colonel and amateur naval historian, he is from a ship-owning family and is a keen recreational sailor. He is a fine artist too, with a particular interest in the traditional working boats of Brittany, on which he has produced illustrated monographs.
I have worked long and hard to bring these books to an anglophone readership, simply because I felt it had to be done; there is virtually no maritime literature showing the eighteenth century, pre-revolutionary struggle for global power from a French perspective. Being of a fiercely independent nature, I have always published my own books under my own imprint – The FitzRoy Press, and have done the same with these two volumes, with the forbearance of the author. There is very little chance that the books will be profitable. To keep the retail price of the hard copy books at a reasonable level (no more than £15) means that once printing, bookseller and distribution costs are taken into account, there is little, if any, remaining margin for the author, translator or publisher. In fact, for the first print run – 200 copies of each volume, there will be a clear deficit. Never mind! There are more important things in life than mere money!