Eat Him if You Like, by Jean Teulé, would be horrifying enough even if it hadn’t been based on an actual event in the not-too-distant past. Alain de Monéys was the son of local gentry, visiting the village of Hautefaye for the annual fair. Almost immediately after he arrived, de Monéys was beaten, tortured, and burned alive. The mayor of Hautefaye was quoted (as he is in the book) as saying when asked what to do with de Monéys, “Eat him if you like.”
This short novella dramatizes what happened to de Monéys on 16 August 1870. Teulé even includes maps of the village. “Stops” are marked, with each chapter reporting on what new horror was inflicted on de Monéys there. It all began with a misunderstanding. The people of Hautefaye—as depicted in Eat Him if You Like and the small bits of the historical record I’ve actually looked at—were patriotic. The Franco-Prussian War had broken out more than a month before de Monéys’ murder. By August, things were not going well for France. Prussians were in French territory. Hautefaye villagers were behind the times, only just hearing the bad news. During the investigation and trial, the perpetrators claimed that de Monéys had been making anti-French/pro-Prussian remarks.
The alleged remarks were a catalyst. Hautefaye’s people became a mob. They could not be reasoned with. They could not be stopped. A few people tried to help de Monéys, risking their own lives to no effect. The mayor, as mentioned above, didn’t even try to save de Monéys. As if being beaten and tortured and burned to death, there were some convincing rumors that a few of the murderers actually put the mayor’s “advice” and ate parts of de Monéys. Teulé does not put us in de Monéys’ head; Eat Him if You Like is mercifully told from a remote third person perspective.
The first arrests happened three days later. The Affaire de Hautefaye (Wikipedia article in French) concluded the following spring. Four men were sentenced to death by guillotine. The rest of the 21 defendants were sentenced to prison and/or hard labor. Only one was acquitted, mostly because he was 14 at the time of the murder.
I’m not worried too much about spoiling the plot of Eat Him if You Like, mostly because it’s an actual historic event. The facts are not why someone would read Teulé’s book anyway. This book captures the futility of fighting a mob. Like many other mobs in history, it has to exhaust itself before it transforms back into individuals. The ability to form a mob is a dark part of human psychology that we don’t fully understand. As Eat Him if You Like portrays it, not even the people in the Hautefaye mob knew what happened once they came to their senses. The news about the war and the comments de Monéys may or may not have made were the “reason” for the mob’s violence, but it doesn’t fully explain what happened on 16 August 1870. We know the details of what happened, but we will never really know why they happened.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.