berna51 years old, and more widely known in the UK as A Hundred Million Francs, this rereads as potently as ever, despite the by-now somewhat clunky translation (the always tricky problem of slang). Gaby’s is I think the BEST KID GANG EVER — ten-strong, living in the poorer quarter of the small Paris-satellite faxctory town Louvigny, multi-cultural (Juan is Spanish Romany, Criquet is black, Tatave is er fat), raging in age from 11 down to 4 (I think — Bonbon looks about that in Richard Kennedy’s wrigglingly lively illustrations) [update: confirmed]. Tho Berthe and Mélie slightly take the “twins” role — they giggle more with each other than engage with the rest — and Zidore and Juan remain a little unsketched (but there are three further books for them to unfold as people) (which I haven’t read for 30 years, but HAVE RE-ORDERED FROM AMAZON) (one of them cost 1p!). But oh MARION THE DOG GIRL, my first ever fictional dreamboat!! Er, anyway, the gang’s obsessive pleasure is a headless wooden horse on tricycle wheels, which they ride pellmell down a steep cobbled street until it hurtles them into a patch of bomb-cratered wasteland, hard by an ancient rusting railway engine known locally as the “black cow”. The horse is rattling junk worth nothing to any but them — until one day a local villain offers them a fortune for it. They reject the offer with scorn — and shortly after the horse is stolen!

The climactic confrontation has been done plenty of times elswhere, one way and another — how can smallish kids outwit and then overpower strong, determined young men? No spoilers (well, not totally)! But as villains, the grown-ups are mean-spirited bullies as much as anything — so their comeuppance is tremendously excellent. The involvement of the kids — in advance and in place of the police — is unusually well justified: in fact their slightly arms-length relationship with the melancholy and disenchanted Inspector Sinet is very engagingly drawn. As are the restricted limits of their world — steep street, wasteland, nearby market, abandoned factory across the wasteland, that’s it, apart from a few indoor scenes.

berna2In form it’s a set of strikingly vivid set-pieces, from the opening drama with the horse — Tatave smashes it into the bottle-collector’s cart and breaks its fork — to the campfire-at-night-in-the-snow interlude to the BATTLE IN AN ABANDONED CARNIVAL NOVELTIES FACTORY! In tone, it’s about the absolute trust the children have in one another — their mutual value, their individual and collective honour — and their circumspect, resolute, cheeky way with anyone aged 12 or above. But it’s also about imagination, kids without a bean creating for and with one another out of next to nothing an adventure-realm all of their own, to postpone a fairly grim-looking future.

THE DOG GIRL: Marion is an awesome character — i am biased but YES SHE IS. She’s not technically the leader (that’s Gaby) or the “character reader identifies with” (which is Fernand), but she’s the brains and heart of the gang, tomboyish (of course), plus strong, quiet, sometimes almost pitiless — and more than a little witchy. Grown-ups are wary of her; Gaby defers to her. Her “sorcerous gift” — which is on the far edges of the zone of scruffy quai-de-brumes-ish realism everywhere established — is a power over dogs: because she can cure them (for neighbours near and far, rich and poor) she can call on them, and when necessary she does.

(the second image is from a french edition, or possibly a comicbook version — illustré par Morris, le papa de Lucky Luke: the man i assume is sinet, not sure which the kids are…)

UPDATE: I just reread The Street Musician, which arrived superbly promptly from amazon. Next in the series (everyone two years older; the horse this time smashed being repair, again by fat Tatave): more a mystery than a thriller (why would a blind street musician need to dye his seeing-eye dog black?), it’s about ingenuity, being quietly observant — and forgiveness. The occupation is more directly mentioned: the gang’s meeting spot is right under a memorial plaque for a group of resistance fighters shot by the Nazis, the bulletholes still visible in the wall — the children’s activities, says Berna simply, do not dishonour this sacred spot. Villainy is in fact not afoot — it’s more like a complex atonement for a previous crime (not war-related), which the kids end up making possible: turning to the final page, the Richard Kennedy illustration, the children dancing on Bastille Day, as the musician plays for them, Fernand and Marion more than ever a couple, was a lovely “ambushed by semi-expected emotion” moment for me. (“Zidore and Tatave gave a disorderly display of rock’n’roll…”) Berna wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms — see comments — and all available biogs are strikingly cagey. Which means what? I’d love to know more.