Isaie is 22 years older than his younger brother Marcellin, and in the absence of a midwife attended Marcellin’s birth some 30 years before in the remote alpine hamlet cut off by the snow. He had been an expert guide for people wanting to explore the mountains until an accident robbed him of his confidence and a lot of other mental abilities, and now he herds a flock of some 20 or so sheep, and is content to do so.
Living in what has become an almost uninhabited hamlet, with very little company and no prospects, Marcellin is keen to sell up and move to look for work and other attractions in the city, but this is the only life that the impaired and timid Isaie knows. The two brothers are at odds and the hot tempered Marcellin tries to bully his older brother into agreeing, even suggesting that he marry a local woman so that he has somewhere to live.
Sympathy lies with both brothers. Marcellin has no life to speak of stuck in deserted hamlet miles from nowhere, cut off from civilisation by snow for much of the year. Isaie on the other hand finds safety and familiarity in the family home and is protected from the advantages that might be taken of his quite marked mental and emotional incapacity.
What Marcellin wants is money. If he had enough money there would be no need to sell the family home and he could leave Isaie in the security of the hamlet and go off to the city, satisfying both their ambitions. Then a solution presents itself. High on the mountains Marcellin learns that an airplane has crashed en route from Calcutta to London. All the passengers are presumed dead, and Marcellin smells money. The passengers, he reasons, will be wealthy and hopefully bejewelled, and it is also known that the plane was carrying the mail from India to England and there would be rich pickings in it. However the only person who knows the route to the top of the mountain, especially in winter, is Isaie. Will he help his brother to pilfer the dead?
The climb is fierce and the action is so well written that I could feel the cold and pain of the snow and the ice. I sensed the danger and felt that I was looking into each abyss they came across, especially the abyss that separated the two brothers. The men are ill-equipped but Isaie’s knowledge and confidence come back to him.
This is one of those short books that makes for compulsive reading. I finished it in 3 sittings it was so compellingly written and while the battle between man and nature unfolds the battle between man and man runs parallel to it. Both man and nature are uncompromising.