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Flammes de Pierre

Flammes de Pierre. Anne Sauvy. Diadem Books. London/USA, 1992, distribution by Trafalgar Square, North Pomfret, VT, 05053. $22.95.

The name of this book of sixteen short stories—which literally means Flames of Rock—refers to the ridge of pinnacles which radiate from Les Drus, in Chamonix. The author has climbed around Chamonix for many years and has absorbed the spirit and the quirks of the climbing scene there—at least the French side of it.

The tales in Flammes de Pierre revolve around those who frequent the mountains of Chamonix: the climbers, both aces and hacks, guides and their clients, and some phantasmagoric characters too. Twists of fate, ego and ambition, the fantastic and the supernatural, all are her subject matter.

The style of Sauvy’s writing is markedly different to the fast-paced, action- oriented journalism about world-class climbing epics we have grown used to in today’s climbing magazines. Her tales build slowly, patiently. Just when you think the story isn’t really heading anywhere, she delivers a strange or dramatic element that hooks the reader till the end. Sauvy’s is a formal and precise style of writing.

Among the most evocative stories in this collection are The Collector, in which a solo climber devises an elaborate scheme to achieve greatness, posthumously, and The Abseil, a nightmarish tale literally about the eternal rappel. Others stand out as being well-crafted too: In The The Bishorn Ghost a malevolent spirit who haunts the Alps and delights in causing mayhem to unsuspecting climbers finds love; and, as in La Fourche, what climber has not wondered whether he or she would sign that Faustian pact if Satan offered a career of stunning success on the heights?

Not every tale works well though. Sauvy plumbs the realm of silliness with satires like The Star, which tells the story of a climbing star manufactured by Hollywood-like image makers, and, in Intrusion, we meet a blob from outer space that consumes climbers to absorb their knowledge—predictably the blob doesn’t think much of climbing.

But other of her satires are cunning parables that made me read closely, as in Liberation, in which the mountains of the Alps are given personalities and a yen for political organization, which ultimately ends up being about as organized as today’s Yugoslavia.

The book first appeared in 1982 in France and won climbing-writing awards there and in Germany. Her most recent collection, La ténèbre et l’azur, from 1991, also won an award in French climbing-literary circles.

Greg Child