Year of the Drought by Roland Buti (transl. Charlotte Mandell): Coming of age in 1976

Cover image I have to admit it was nostalgia that drew me to Roland Buti’s Swiss novella set in 1976. Anyone who was alive and conscious in that year will remember the long hot summer which those of us not yet working luxuriated in throughout Europe. Rather more recently, H and I were walking in the Swiss Alps through a similar landscape to the one in which Buti has set his story of the Sutters who have farmed the same patch of land for many years but for whom the events of 1976 will prove momentous.

Thirteen-year-old Gus spends the summer holidays helping his father and his cousin Rudy who has Down’s Syndrome. He visits the family’s ancient horse with whom his grandfather sleeps in a nearby stable, preferring to bed down in hay than stay in his flat. When a young woman turns up, clad in a long patchwork dress and spouting hippie ideas, Rudy becomes besotted but it’s Gus’ mother who’s the object of Cécile’s attentions. His taciturn father becomes increasingly morose until village tittle-tattle proves too much. His wife moves out, his daughter throws herself into practicing for a school concert and Gus frets about what’s to become of them all. Meanwhile, the aged dog faints from the heat, the new chickens roast in their hen-house and the sun beats relentlessly down. The inevitable storm brings disaster with it.

Buti unfolds his story from Gus’ perspective as he looks back on the dramatic events of that summer. His language vividly summons up the deadening heat: ‘The yellow sky, the yellow fields, the car splitting the yellow air on the yellow road… They were all unreal’. Gus’ father is wedded to a way of life that’s fast passing, his plans for a future farming chickens blown apart by the cataclysmic weather. He’s left bereft, puzzled and angry by the behaviour of his wife, unaware of her long unhappiness: ‘Mum was always busy with a multitude of tasks that no doubt helped to keep her from feelings of despair’. There’s a nice thread of humour running through the novel lightening its tone, from the fainting dog to Rudy’s spit-polished red apple handed to Cécile as a token of his adoration. Altogether an enjoyable read and not just because of a double dose of nostalgia.

Speaking of which, Buti’s novel brought back memories of the farm where we stopped for the last lunch of our holiday. We had a cheese plate, looking out at a fabulous view then across to the open stable at the cows who’d produced what we were eating. Idyllic for us, hard work for the family that ran it.

15 thoughts on “Year of the Drought by Roland Buti (transl. Charlotte Mandell): Coming of age in 1976”

  1. This does sound like an enjoyable read. I did not grow up in Europe, but I did grow up in a semi-rural environment and would have been 15 in the summer of 1976. All I remember about the summers of my youth was that they were too short!

    1. I’ve a feeling 1976 will stand out more for older UK readers than other Europeans given our often disappointing summers. My partner, mentioned in the blog, has just told me that it was the summer he first visited the Swiss Alps. It was his first grown-up holiday!

  2. This sounds lovely. A perfect little book to take along on the next trip to that part of the world. (Emma Henderson’s The Valentine House has one strand set in the French Alps in the summer of ’76.)

    1. When I was looking through our Swiss photos for this post and came upon the one I used, I thought about the Sutters who took an unlucky wrong turn from the family whose lovely cows we admired. I’ve heard good things about The Valentine House – must search it out.

  3. Fascinating! From here in Australia where drought for years and years is part of our recurring climate cycle, (and farmers have learned to deal with it) it’s interesting to imagine how an aberrant weather event like this impacted in Europe. *wry expression* The weather is the one thing we can’t control in our modern world…

    1. Sadly, not. I remember hearing a radio documentary about drought in Australia in which children approaching adolescence had never seen rain, and that was quite some time ago. We’ve become more accustomed to the opposite problem.

  4. This sounds a lovely read, struck through with nostalgia. I’m too young (!) to remember 1976 but have spent my whole life hearing all about it, it is legend.

  5. Interesting that Lisa mentions not being able to control the weather as the novel seemed to me about how control is only an illusion, particularly for his father. There was also a sense of farming changing in a way that was also beyond control.

    1. Yes, the father no longer had his hands on the whee, so to speak, despite attempts to maintain his grip. While reading this book I thought about the family whose cows we photographed after our lunch. They’d adapted to changes in farming by offering tours of their immaculate milking parlour and nights spent sleeping on ‘wild hay’ in addition to light meals. It felt like more of a tourist attraction than a farm. I’m not sure the the Sutters could have pulled that one off or would have wanted to!

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