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Zachary Richard releases his first novel

Zachary Richard
Courtesy photo

"Les Rafales du carême" is the first French-language novel written by a Louisianan since 1894.

Lire en français sur Le Louisianais

Zachary Richard, Louisiana’s celebrated singer-songwriter and former poet laureate, launched his first novel “Les Rafales du carême” at the end of October. He revives an old, almost forgotten tradition by offering us the first novel written and published in French by a Louisianan since the release of Sidonie de la Houssaye’s “Les Quarteronnes de la Nouvelle-Orléans” 129 years ago.

In a sustained style reminiscent of 19th-century literature in France and Louisiana, Richard sprinkles the text with words from our prairies and bayous, such as tchéroquis and lagniappe, telling the story of two orphaned brothers who are French immigrants in Louisiana in search of the American dream, which turns into a nightmare for Martin Begnaud, a merchant killed during a robbery. Richard transforms this tragic crime, which is a true story already covered by historian William Arceneaux in his book “No Spark of Malice,” published in France under the title “Meurtre en Louisiane,” into an adventure worthy of the best pages of a writer with more books to his credit. Both authors hail from the same small town, Scott, where the murder took place in 1896. Using this homicide as a starting point, Richard delivers a wildly imaginative 400-page tome featuring P.G.T. Beauregard, Sarah Bernhardt and even Buffalo Bill.

A project in gestation for some thirty years, what would become the book first filled a dozen notebooks with, what Richard recalled, “my chicken scratch handwriting,” which was constantly interrupted by musical tours or the recording of a new album. The sudden pause of live music during the pandemic had finally given Richard the time to embark on “the marathon that is writing a novel.”

The novel opens on a hot and windy Dimanche Gras, February 19, 1882, with news of Begnaud’s death. As Richard admits in the foreword, he takes a few artistic liberties with the dates, but the drama is as real as the turbulence of this evolving post-Reconstruction society. One might think of “Gone with the Wind,” but that would be wrong. Unlike Margaret Mitchell, Richard paints a balanced picture of life at the time, without false modesty or true nostalgia, drawn from his family memories and his imagination fed on gumbo, fricassée and jambalaya.

Like Faulkner, Richard weaves the story through several narrators: Ernest Blanc, one of the French brothers; André Boudreaux, the victim’s nephew and 17-year-old protagonist; and Marie Boudreaux, who gives voice to the women who don’t suffer but resist “the consequences of actions taken by men,” Richard said.

As this is Louisiana, a touch of mysticism is in order, with a seance raising the first suspicions about the culprits. In the midst of this plethora of characters, Richard is the conductor who makes this rich narrative resonate, linking history and poetry, the imaginary and the real, betrayal and forgiveness.