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“Introduction: A Moor in the Onyx Ash Grove” – Fiction by Amanda Sarasien

Night - Alexandre-Auguste Hirsch, 1875
Night – Alexandre-Auguste Hirsch, 1875

“Introduction: A Moor in the Onyx Ash Grove, Amanda Sarasien‘s Borgesian contribution to our Winter 2015 issue, introduces us to a fascinating “novel in miniature” called Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx, written by Sylvain Dubois and reviewed by the highly intelligent yet somewhat cranky G.L.B. Pym. (Don’t forget to read the footnotes!)

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YOU MIGHT SAY THE DRIVING RAIN DROVE ME TO SYLVAIN DUBOIS. That afternoon, in Geneva, I had failed to locate the restaurant recommended to me by a discerning friend. I had wandered all morning under a leaden sky, as if tempting my luck, and so was not surprised when the heavens suddenly let loose, soaking my brand-new, bespoke wingtip brogues. I ducked into the closest storefront, only to find myself standing amid row upon row of sagging bookshelves. In some sort of numinous equation solved by the hand of fate, I had, by chance, stepped into the only space more comforting to me than a cordwainer’s shop. Fine Italian leather for full-leather binding, it seemed a worthy, albeit unnecessary, sacrifice.

And how, among the hundreds of thousands of titles all stuffed into that dim cavern, I ever alighted upon Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx, could also be described as kismet. While the owner pottered around behind teetering stacks of unshelved volumes, mumbling in German to a mangy, calico cat, I distractedly pried the book from its place, at first mistaking the rubbed gilt lettering on its spine for the name Dumas. When confronted with my error, I was tempted to return it to its place, but one glance out the window told me I’d have plenty of time to examine the contents of this little shop. I turned to the first pages. “Monsieur?” I called into the gloom, before remembering he had been speaking German. But, too late, the shopkeeper had already answered me in French, so I continued by asking if he knew anything about this Sylvain Dubois. The man furrowed his brow, squinted at me from beneath bushy, unkempt gray eyebrows and shook his head. Then, wordlessly, he turned and shuffled off.

Despite the series of serendipitous circumstances which led to my purchase of that first battered volume, I maintain that only my singular bibliophilic tenacity could have transformed happenstance into a true connoisseurship. I, alone and without the benefit of literary orientation, read the book, cover to cover, judged it entirely on its own merits, and proceeded to immerse myself in Dubois research, piecing together the fantastic fragments of a life we now know all too well. Thus, I do not hesitate in laying claim to the distinction of Sylvain Dubois’ first English-language reader, and it is under this authority that I introduce him to you now.

Sylvain Dubois was born Auguste Hauchecorne on May 22, 1893, in Bernay, France, the only child of Severin and Arianne (née Lacaille) Hauchecorne. At an early age, he eschewed the family profession of glassblowing and declared his intention to become an arborist. But, only seven months into his apprenticeship, his precocity got the better of him, when, behind his mentor’s back, he created a crossbreed he believed would protect surrounding trees from infestation by any number of insect species plaguing France’s orchards at that time. To test his hypothesis, he planted this new hybrid among a grove of the region’s oldest trees, and within one month, every single trunk was mottled with the scars of a previously unknown disease, contracted from the seemingly innocent little sapling. When it was learned the role Hauchecorne had played in this calamity, the youth was disgraced, his budding career in arboriculture uprooted.

Hauchecorne did not have time to contemplate his failure, however, for three weeks later, World War I broke out. Auguste, a vehement pacifist, fled to Brittany to avoid the draft, and adopted an ascetic’s life in the mythic forest of Brocéliande. Here he took the name Sylvain Dubois, moved into an old, hollow oak tree and subsisted on acorns. Unfortunately, it was precisely his pseudonym which gave him away. When residents of the local village reported the presence of a strange man who called himself Sylvain Dubois, it was only a matter of time before the French military connected the doubly arboreal name[1] to that failed arborist gone missing from the Eure district. He was summarily removed from his mystical home and shipped off to the front.

Once in the trenches, Dubois was assigned mess hall duty, eventually working his way up to head cook. It was during this time that he discovered writing when, attempting to develop an haute cuisine centered upon the acorn (a cuisine which, incidentally, did not prove popular with the soldiers), he found himself more and more absorbed in embellishing the written descriptions of his dishes. He then announced to his comrades in arms that upon conclusion of the war, he would go abroad, with the goal of penning a travelogue to the world’s great trees. While we can surmise that such a guide would have generated little interest from publishers, let alone readers, we will, in fact, never know, because not long after the armistice, Dubois checked himself into an institution and was diagnosed with shellshock, a condition he had heretofore been treating with cocaine. He spent the next four years in Fond-du-Lac Sanatorium in Bellevue, Switzerland, just outside Geneva.

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