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The Summer of Katya by Trevanian – Thriller in the Basque country

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian (1983) French title: L’été de Katya. Translated by Emmanuèle de Lesseps.

But despite the physical and emotional parallels between today and that distant summer, I find it difficult to express my memories lucidly. The problem is not in the remembering; it is in the recording; for a while I recall each note clearly, they play a false melody when I string them together. And it is not only the intervening years that distort the sounds and images; it is the fact that the events occurred on the other side of the Great War, beyond the gulf of experience and pain that separate two centuries, two cultures. Those of us whose lives are draped across that war find their youths deposited on the shore of a receding, almost alien, continent where life was lived at a different tempo and, more important, in a different timbre. The things we did and said, our motives and methods, had different implications from those they now have; therefore, it is possible for a description of those things to be completely accurate without being at all truthful.

When the narrator of The Summer of Katya by Trevanian says this, we are in August 1938. Dr Jean-Marc Montjean is 45 as he recalls his summer of 1914, just before the Great War started.

In 1914, he’s 21 and he’s back in the French Basque country after studying medicine in Paris. Dr Gros took him in as assistant to his clinic where he specializes in the “discomforts” associated with menopause. Jean-Marc is skeptical about the clinic’s patients, doesn’t hide it from Dr Gros but he took him in anyway.

Jean-Marc meets the Treville when Katya comes into the village to fetch a doctor because her brother Paul hurt his shoulder. They are twins and look very much alike. They live with their father in a remote rented house. Their father is buried in books, a history buff who only comes out of his office from time to time.

Jean-Marc is soon fascinated by Katya and strikes an odd friendship with Paul. The young man seems to play a game of push-and-pull with him, sometimes letting him in as a friend and sometimes roughly pushing him away. Katya is the same, apparently torn between going further with him and rejecting him for reasons he has yet to discover. Jean-Marc is on a constant roller-coaster of emotions with these two. Paul and Katya have warned him off: their father must not think there is any kind of love relationship between Katya and Jean-Marc. Why?

A feeling of unease rapidly invades the reader’s mind. Why are the Treville in Salies-Les-Bains? What are they hiding from? What scandal pushed them to flee from Paris? Why did Katya decided to change her name from Hortense to Katya? They share a heavy burden, but what is it?

Paul keeps telling Jean-Marc that he must not fall in love with Katya but you can’t avoid falling in love. The atmosphere thickens and the reader knows from the start that there will be no happy ending, we just wait for the drama to unfold before our eyes.

Besides the story between the protagonists and the thriller side of the book, The Summer of Katya is a fine piece of literature. Trevanian has lived in the French Basque country for a while and you can feel it in the descriptions of Salies-les-Bains, of the countryside and the village feast the Treville and Jean-Marc attend. As you heard it in the quote before, his language has a melancholic musicality. Jean-Marc never married after that summer, the one of Katya, the last one of his youth, before History hit him with the Great War and he had to recover from the aftermath of Katya. It was the end of a civilization and the end of his world.

I had never read any book by Trevanian before this one. I understand that The Summer of Katya is different from his other novels and that his most famous one is Shibumi. Has anyone read him before?

  1. August 25, 2019 at 10:38 am

    I only read Shibumi … Great.
    Et également vu le film ‘la sanction’ de Clint. Cela donne envie de se replonger dans Trevanian.

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    • August 25, 2019 at 8:45 pm

      J’ai cru comprendre que Shibumi était plutôt de l’espionnage, je me trompe?
      Celui-ci a l’air vraiment très différent mais il est vraiment bien écrit.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. August 25, 2019 at 12:54 pm

    I’d never heard of this author – nor of Shibumi. This one does sound very different to his more thrillerish efforts.

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    • August 25, 2019 at 8:46 pm

      It’s published by Gallmeister, you know they always find good things.
      I’ll probably try one of his other books. I’m not sure Shibumi is for me.

      Like

  3. August 26, 2019 at 11:24 am

    It’s interesting, that feeling that life before and after the Great War was completely discontinuous. It is probably true of the Europe and Britain, and therefore of Literature, after all empires came to an end. But it is the opposite in Australia, where our participation in the War was seen as a confirmation of our young nationhood (which commenced in 1901).

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    • August 26, 2019 at 9:10 pm

      Yes, in Europe, it’s seen as the end of a world. That’s how it’s taught in school too: teachers tell you that the 20thC actually started with the Great War.

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  4. August 26, 2019 at 5:04 pm

    I read The Summer of Katya about ten years ago and vaguely remember the story. But I remember being strongly affected by it at the time.

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    • August 26, 2019 at 9:11 pm

      I think one remembers more the atmosphere than the story itself.

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  5. September 6, 2019 at 6:14 pm

    I’m really intrigued by this book now that I’ve read your billet. Too bad libraries over here seem to have decided it’s enough to have multiple copies of Shibumi (or Sibumi in the Hungarian translation).

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    • September 7, 2019 at 4:37 pm

      I’m not sure it’s his most read book. Shibumi seems to be his most famous one. I’m not sure it’s for me, though.
      I just bought his Incident at Twenty-Mile, it’s totally different as it’s a western.

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  6. David Johnston
    December 5, 2020 at 6:16 pm

    The Summer of Katya and Shibumi are two quite different works of fiction from Trevanian. To my mind, they are his two best novels, and in that order. The two are amongst my favourite novels by any author. The stories, the characters, the descriptions of place, and the writing overall are all splendid.

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    • December 5, 2020 at 10:37 pm

      I’m less tempted by Shibumi because of its setting but I agree with you, his books have a strong sense of place.
      Have you read Incident at Twenty-Mile too?

      Like

  7. Tim Campbell
    December 30, 2020 at 7:09 am

    How and where may I find French translations of Trevanian’s books? Particulary « The summer of Katya » and « The Main » I want to send them to my friend in France as a gift. No luck so far finding a translation. Help!? Thanks TC

    Like

  1. February 1, 2020 at 6:31 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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