Rereading a well-loved children’s book can be risky. Some hold up well – my adult niece is currently enjoying Anne of Green Gables all over again. Others, well, you need to be a child to appreciate them properly.
So I hesitated to re-open The Street Musician (Le Piano à Bretelle) by Paul Berna. I needn’t have worried. The story engaged me once again, and I remembered what it was about it that had so attracted me as a child.
But first, a little background. Paul Berna is the pen-name of Jean Sabran (1908–1994), author of more than 30 children’s books, about half of which have been translated into English. He also wrote adult novels under three other pseudonyms – Bernard Deleuze, Paul Gerrard, and Joel Audrenn. He used different names for different types of books, and avoided using his own name because he did not want to be confused with his brother Guy Sabran, who was also a writer. He was ferociously prolific, especially considering that his career as an author started when he was in his forties.
His “breakout” children’s book appeared in 1955. In French it is called Le cheval sans tête (known in translation as A Hundred Million Francs). It was translated into about 20 languages and reprinted many times. Walt Disney even turned it into a film called The Headless Horse in 1963 (making changes to the story that the author disliked).
A Hundred Million Francs tells the story of a gang of ten children of various ages living in the imaginary working-class suburb of Louvigny-Triage, who stumble across a crime and end up thwarting some ugly villains.
Gaby, Marion, Fernand, Juan, Berthe, Mélie, Zidore, Tatave, Criquet, and Bonbon range in age from about 12 down to about six or seven. They spend their free time together, at large in the streets of Louvigny after school and on weekends. They do have parents, but the parents stay firmly in the background.
Paul Berna, like many other children’s writers, found that in fiction, children need to be on their own, away from their families, to display personality and initiative, which is probably why so many protagonists in children’s fiction, from Anne of Green Gables to Harry Potter, are orphans. He gives his fictional creations great independence – so much so that an earlier book, Vacances en Scooter, published in 1952, about a teenaged boy and his eight-year-old sister who take off together on a scooter, caused a flap. Parents were worried it would encourage other children to do the same thing.
A Hundred Million Francs keeps the children close to home, but courting danger nonetheless. The headless horse is the remains of a rocking horse mounted on a tricycle undercarriage without pedals or brakes, and the children take it in turns to career down a steep hill.
The horse shot down the rue des Petits-Pauvres making the most appalling noise from its three iron wheels. It was wonderful and the cross-roads gave the ride a spice of danger that made it even more glorious. Then, right at the very end, the road made a steep climb, taking the horse and rider on to the bank round the Clos Pecqueux. As you breasted the rise you could see nothing but empty fields stretching grey to the horizon, so that for two seconds you felt as though you were flying. But if you failed to brake with your heels, you were over the crupper and flat on your back.
And that’s a typical adventure before the villains get hold of the horse.
What I love about that passage and many others, is the vividly evoked landscape of a suburb at the edge of the city, where the fields begin. And I love the names in the book – the Rue de Petits-Pauvres, the Clos Pecqueux, the Faubourg-Bacchus (where some of the children live), the inevitable Square de la Libération and rue des Alliés, and the rue de la Vache Noire.
Berna has a gift for evocative descriptions.
The sun was going down quickly. Darkness was covering the town like a flood, drowning the slums of Louvigny-Cambrouse, the sidings, the factories, and the smoky railway tracks where the coloured signal lights sprang up as though by magic and stretched away into the distance. All of a sudden it got colder.
The illustrations, by Richard Kennedy, fit the mood perfectly.
As a child, I also loved the fact that the setting was urban. Although I enjoyed stories about rural life (Anne of Green Gables in particular), I couldn’t identify with them. I grew up in a city. My surroundings consisted of streets and buildings and my pleasures came from public transit and museums and department stores. Rural was for holidays; urban was home. My surroundings weren’t as industrial as Louvigny, but I recognized a familiar landscape.
Berna’s fully realized imaginary town is probably the reason I actually prefer the second novel about the Louvigny gang, The Street Musician (the French version is called Le Piano à Bretelle, which means “The Accordion”). Published in 1956, it is a mystery more than an adventure, and the puzzle at its heart is not so much a crime as a tragedy.
It begins in the Square Théodore-Branque – I’m sure you know it, or somewhere just like it. The gang is restless after the exciting adventure of the headless horse, until Marion (she is not the leader, but she is often the brains of the organization) has an idea:
“Adventures only happen to people who take the trouble to look for them… There’s plenty going on in town: let’s keep our eyes open, take a good look round and I bet within a couple of days we’ll have sniffed out an adventure just as exciting as the one the horse led us into.”
Indeed, by staying alert, the gang notices something strange – a blind accordion player who goes to a different part of town every day, playing a random selection of pieces, but always ending with the same haunting gypsy tune. He even plays in deserted streets where there is no one to hear him or give him a coin. What is more, he is accompanied by a dog who has been deliberately dyed black. Marion knows, because she rescues injured and abandoned dogs, and this was one of hers.
Following the musician requires the gang to go up and down every street in town, to the point at which the reader feels it might be possible to draw a map of Louvigny. One illustration contains the beginnings of such a map. And the mystery hinges on the geography of the town, and the discovery of a road that has been hidden since the war. As a child, I used to draw maps of imaginary towns and cities, so that’s another reason this book appealed to me so much.
As I read it again, I found that the story holds up well, and so do the characters and the setting. In part this may be because Paul Berna put his own childhood into his books – he actually had a headless horse on wheels, and was part of a large family that must have felt like a children’s gang at times. Admittedly, the books are period pieces (especially in light of today’s helicopter parenting), and the language is that of the 1950s, translated into 1950s English in my elderly Puffin editions (yes, I still have the original copies I had when I was eight or so).
But one day I shall read Paul Berna in French. And perhaps one day, I shall find myself in Louvigny, or something just like it, and I’ll know my way around immediately.
Text by Philippa Campsie, book illustrations by Richard Kennedy.