«Brittany is a distant country. This is not a matter of kilometres. Spain and Czechoslovakia are further away in that sense. But Brittany is more distant in terms of civilisation.»
So wrote Pierre-Jakez Helias (or Per-Jakez to give the Breton version of his name), who died last Sunday on the eve of many great Breton festivities, two days before the Feast of the Assumption; and the wistful melancholy of Breton songs thereby acquired a further measure of sadness as they mourned him.
Helias, by his writings, plays and media appearances, was the most prolific narrator of Breton culture. His fame became considerable with the publication of Le Cheval d’Orgeuil, the memoirs of a Breton, which originally appeared in weekly bilingual instalments in the magazine Ouest-France in 1974 and was a publishing phenomenon when it appeared in book form in 1975. It sold more than 2 million copies, was translated into some 20 languages, and became the subject of a film by Claude Chabrol in 1980. This occurred at a time when the prosperity of France, although becoming increasingly hesitant, encouraged people to indulge in the old ways of life: to eat bread as it used to be made; to visit museums which recreated the villages of the past; to return momentarily to the world of peasants and artisans. The success of Helias’s evocative writing continued as France accepted a Euro-uniformity which encouraged the counter-cult of a more specific Celtic identity.
Helias was born in the village of Pouldreuzic, which lies in the Pays Bigouden in the south-west corner of Brittany. It is the scene of Le Cheval d’Orgeuil where the boy, born into a peasant family whose only language is Breton, goes for long walks with his grandfather. The old man is a teller of tales, a man who goes from village to village selling his stories as others sell clothes, and as he himself once made and sold clogs. With him the boy learns the legends and the beliefs of local tradition: the threatening sky, the sinister wind, the dangerous sea, loneliness, poverty, superstition, the whole punctuated by festivities. It is a poetic, unforgettable world, and a great work of literature.
Helias went to school in Quimper, and from there studied at the University of Rennes. He became a teacher at Quimper and was encouraged to write by the poet Max Jacob, who spent much time there. He was an amateur actor and wrote several plays in Breton. In 1938 he went to Nimes, where he was struck by the difference between the peasants of that area of the south and those of Britanny. He determined to make a record of Breton folklore, and from 1940, when he was in hiding from the Germans, he started interviewing people and studying their dialects, costumes (particular headgear), and music. From 1945 he directed a Breton programme on the radio and he never tired of pleading the cause of the Breton language. He recounted many of the stories that he had heard; but the storyteller usually interested him more than the story itself. His activity was always ethnographic and cultural rather than political, although he remembered how he had been punished for speaking Breton at school and never forgot this injustice.
Helias has been criticised for writing nostalgically about the past, and for lamenting the decline of language and costume instead of recognising the existence of the new Brittany which is adapting to a changing present. This is in many ways unfair, because many of the present festivals which fit easily into the touristic Brittany are his creation. This was especially so for the Festival of Quimper over which he presided, and in July of this year for the first time Helias, who was in hospital, did not attend.
Helias was asked what nationality he would have chosen if he had not been born a Breton. «What would I wish to be were I not Breton? Why», he replied, «I would wish to be Breton.»
Pierre-Jakez Helias, writer, teacher: born Pouldreuzic, Finistere 17 February 1914; married; died Quimper 13 August 1995.