Excerpt from By a Slow River by Phillipe Claudel, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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By a Slow River

by Phillipe Claudel

By a Slow River
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 208 pages
    Jun 2007, 208 pages

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When his sentence was pronounced the convicted criminal would howl, burst into tears, or fly into a rage. Sometimes he'd raise his hands to heaven, as if he'd suddenly remembered his catechism. By now, though, he was entirely invisible to Destinat. The prosecutor would be putting his notes away in his briefcase, four or five sheets on which he'd composed his closing argument, purple ink in his small refined script, a handful of well-chosen words that reliably made the court shudder and the jurors reflect, unless they were asleep; a few words that sufficed to erect a scaffold as if in an instant, surer than two journeyman carpenters could have done in a week.

He bore no grudge against the condemned. I saw the proof of that with my own eyes, in a hallway just following the verdict. Destinat emerged with his Cato-like air, his beautiful ermine still on his back, and came face-to-face with the Widow's future husband—the Widow, that's what they called the guillotine. The prisoner harangued him plaintively, eyes still red from having just heard his awful fate, and now full of remorse that he'd ever pumped those gunshots into his boss's gut. "Mistah Prosecutor," he whined, "Mistah Prosecutor . . ." Destinat looked him right in the eye, oblivious to the bailiff and the handcuffs, put a hand on his shoulder, and answered, "Yes, my friend. We've already met, haven't we? What can I do for you?" As sincere as you please—no mockery at all. The condemned man looked stunned. It was as if a second sentence had been pronounced on top of the first.

Following the end of every trial, Destinat would have lunch at the Rébillon, across from the cathedral. The owner is a fat man with a head white and yellow, like an endive, and a mouthful of rotten teeth. His name is Bourrache. He's not very clever, but he has a good head for money. That's his nature: no fault of his. He always wears a large apron of blue wool that makes him look like a girthed-up barrel. He used to have a wife who never left her bed; she suffered from sluggishness, as we say in this region, where it's not uncommon for certain women to confuse the November fogs with their own distress. When she finally died it was less on account of this illness—which after a time she'd probably put on as a permanent mantle—than because of what had happened, because of the Case.

At the time, the Bourrache daughters were like three little lilies, but with a pure touch of blood that brightened their complexions to a glow. The youngest was barely ten. She had no luck—or maybe she had a lot. Who knows?

The other two merely bore their first names, Aline and Rose, while everyone called the smallest one Belle and a few would-be poets made it Belle-de-jour—Morning Glory. When I would see all three of them in the room, carrying carafes of water, liters of wine, and silverware, among dozens of men who talked too loudly and drank too much, it seemed as if someone had arranged the flowers to relieve the sordidness of the atmosphere. And even in the company of her sisters, the little one looked so unspoiled as to seem not of our world.

When Destinat entered the restaurant, Bourrache—a man of habit—always treated him to the exact same greeting: "Another one cut down to size, Mr. Prosecutor!" Destinat would never answer, and Bourrache would show him to his seat. The prosecutor's table, one of the best, was reserved for him year-round. I didn't say the best, because that would have been the one nearest the enormous earthenware stove beside the window hung with crocheted curtains giving onto the entire Courthouse Square; that table was for Judge Mierck. A regular, Judge Mierck ate there four times a week. His belly told the tale, sagging down well beyond his waist; so did his skin, scored with broken veins as though all the Burgundies he'd drunk were waiting in line to be flushed out. Mierck didn't like the prosecutor very much. The feeling was mutual. I might even be putting it too mildly. Yet we would see them greet each other solemnly, doffing their hats, like two men opposed in life's every matter who share its daily course all the same.

Excerpted from By a Slow River by Philippe Claudel Copyright © 2006 by Philippe Claudel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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