This is possibly Varenne’s most ambitious book to date, a gripping, stark revision of the nineteenth century adventure novel. Antonin Varenne’s novels always have an interesting take on the world, whether historical or contemporary, his writing is always intelligent and thought provoking. Equator is set in the 1870s and is no exception, at times breathtakingly exciting but crucially never a slave to the romantic spirit of the adventure novel – this is altogether darker material. The journey is as much into the soul of Pete Ferguson, a troubled young man, as it is an odyssey to the equator from his small town origins in Basin in post Civil War USA.

This novel is a loose sequel to Retribution Road, both novels are thematically similar, Equator follows on chronologically and they both demonstrate an epic scale. However, Equator is more focused, less driven by the genre elements of the story. The author has set out to invest a new spirit of realism in the nineteenth century adventure story creating a tale that is gritty, sweaty, bloody and bone dry. As much satire as homage or pastiche and definitely more Joseph Conrad than Conan Doyle or Jules Verne. The idea of the adventurer, explorer, may not be the same as it was then but it is still a romantic concept, it’s in our DNA to feel that lust for daring travel. However, the faux romance has been stripped from this earthy novel, even more so than in Retribution Road. Yet, Equator is still a vast sprawling epic from the battle scarred post Civil War American West through Mexico, Guatemala, Guyana and Brazil. Pete Ferguson is a restless soul, he carries the guilt of his past, something he’s escaping, driven by the belief that somehow the equator (maybe like Lourdes for Catholics) has healing powers (powers to take away the sins of the world? Of Pete Ferguson?). He is searching for some peace in his life, but Pete Ferguson brings trouble with him. Pete is angry and violent and never had the moral guidance that said there was a better way so many of his misfortunes are self-inflicted. The big question of the novel: Is there redemption for Pete Ferguson?

This is not Varenne’s first historical novel translated into English, last year’s, Retribution Road, already mentioned, was also an historical epic, part western, part crime thriller, travelogue and adventure story, from Burma to London and London to the Wild West. A fantastic and surprising novel that was almost an attack on the senses it was so rich in thought and action and variety. Brilliant and so readable, definitely one of the books I most enjoyed last year. Equator is a sharper piece of writing, a simplified structure, there are less leaps in the dark but despite the clearer plotline this is still a very surprising novel. Equator is less romantic than Retribution Road, more realist. Set in a world where most people would hardly venture beyond their own backyards Pete represents that spirit of adventure, he becomes a fur trader, a gold digger, a mercenary, an émigré – but mostly he is running because he can’t bare to stand still, he can’t live with his past. His journey is not a choice, it’s not a childhood dream it’s an escape. The search for a Shangri-la is a justification for his journey but one that holds no water really. Pete has a younger brother, they had a traumatic childhood, a brutal father; it left Pete damaged and hardened to the world – he makes bad choices off the back of it. His romantic dream is an illusion and Pete has no faith to guide him either.

Equator opens in Lincoln, Nebraska, 1871, renamed in honour of the president, to the victor the spoils, and the North won. Pete Ferguson watches the hopeful settlers arrive in their wagons, secure their free parcels of land (150 acres) from the US Land Office and go on their way west. Just as the agent, George Emery, is locking up one night Pete Ferguson accosts him about the land giveaway. He’s been drinking, he robs Emery of his wallet, $78, before burning down his office. The fugitive Pete Ferguson is wanted in Nebraska for robbery and arson and murder in Nevada. As he makes his escape his journey begins.

Dodge City, Kansas, September, 1871. George Hoover took a chance, he built himself a saloon in a small settlement and a year later the railway came. When Pete Ferguson arrives in town the bison hunters are negotiating the price to ship their wares west and east. Pete joins their next hunt:

“your job will be everything except killing bison. Butchering the bodies. The dumbest, toughest and most repugnant work you’ll ever have done.” [McRea]

It isn’t long before Pete discovers the devastation a tornado can bring and gets into a deadly fight which forces him to flee the group. He heads towards Mexico, teams up with comancheros, so called, and takes a liking to a married woman. His adventures lead him to Guatemala. He meets up with Xinca rebels, and gets involved in their political struggle for Indian rights. He meets Maria who sees him for what he is a mercenario but they develop an understanding. Pete saves Maria but can she save him? This is a novel of mercenaries, revolutionaries, pirates, a women’s village, poets, and the making of history.

‘Pete finished his rum. “Where are we going?”
“Where do you want to go?” [Segundo]
“To the equator.”
“What will you do there?”
“No idea.” ’

After ten years Pete reaches his destination, but does it provide any answers in his life?

This is a visceral read that also has tender moments, not a novel easily forgotten. Equator was translated from the French edition Equateur, 2017, by Sam Taylor. Taylor has previously translated Binet, Slimani and Dicker among others. If you are interested in Varenne’s novels I would also recommend his first novel, Bed of Nails (2012), a contemporary thriller set in Paris, a secret life and a dark conspiracy, and his second novel in English, Loser’s Corner (2015), a policeman and amateur boxer makes money with his fists on the side but the work he is doing off the books is part of a dark scheme and is soul sapping.

Paul Burke 4/4

Equator by Antonin Varenne
MacLehose Press 9780857058737 hbk Mar 2019