Death of an Ancient King by Laurent Gaudé

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Death of an Ancient King Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

Winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lyceéns 2002 and the Prix des Libraires 2003

Five words from the blurb: King, old, wedding, conflict, honour

I recently had a wonderful Twitter conversation with @thetoietlis about French fiction. She recommended many books, but Death of an Ancient King caught my eye as she said it was too dark for her. I bought a copy knowing it would also be perfect for Paris in July – a month long celebration of French literature and culture organised by BookBath and Thyme for Tea.

Death of an Ancient King has a fable-like quality and can be seen as warning against the futility of war. It begins with King Tsongor preparing a lavish wedding for his daughter, but on the eve of the big day a former suitor appears, claiming that she is promised to him. The King is unable to resolve the situation and a war breaks out between the two potential husbands. 

The entire book was quick and easy to read. It flowed beautifully and gave no indication that it was in translation.  Unlike @thetoietlis I didn’t find it too dark. There were descriptions of battle, but the scenes were described in a detached way, so I was never disturbed.

The days and months passed to the rhythm of warriors advancing and retreating. Positions were taken, then lost, then taken again. Thousands of footsteps carved out pathways of suffering in the dust of the plain. They advanced. They retreated. They died. The bodies dried in the sun, were reduced to skeletons. Then the bones, bleached by time, crumbled, and more warriors came to die in these heaps of man-dust.

I loved the first 80 pages, but after that scenes of war took over and I became less interested. If these had been reduced by about 75% the book would have had far more impact. 

King Tsongor was a fantastic character and I found his story the most interesting. I wish that we’d learnt more about his past and the story surrounding his footman had been given more prominence. 

Overall this was a compelling story with a good moral heart, but there was too much fighting for me. 


Laurent Gaudé is an interesting author and I’m keen to try more of his novels. Have you read any of them?


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  1. Karen says:

    Thanks for joining in our Paris in July event Jackie! I have not heard of this author before and I am trying to track down some interesting French novels for this month so I will have to see if my library carries this one – although like you, I’m not sure all the battle scenes will keep me interested!

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, I hadn’t heard of this author either, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for him in future. I’d be interested to know what you make of this one so I hope your library stocks a copy (mine didn’t :-( )

  2. David says:

    Nope, don’t remember a thing about this novel. I thought your review would prompt at least a vague recollection but sadly not. I know I’ve read it (I had to as I was commissioned to do the illustration for the paperback cover) and I know I wasn’t keen on it. I’ve even dug out the sketchbook in which I worked on ideas and it still isn’t helping: a bloke on a horse facing off with a bloke on a camel, both waving swords, in a desert with a fire burning on the hills; an arrangement of jugs and urns and spices and fabrics – it all looks quite interesting!
    It’s actually quite disconcerting – I can’t think of many books which I have entirely forgotten.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I am surprised that you’ve forgotten about this one as there are elements I’m sure I’ll remember a few years down the line. I wonder if the problem is that this book isn’t very descriptive – it has a mythical feel and I do find it hard to picture the surroundings they were in, but I love the sound of the images from your sketch book – they sound spot-on!

  3. Scott Pack says:

    I read this book years ago and remember enjoying it’s fable-like quality. Was there some sort of advisor or court official who plays an important role or something like that?

    A few years later I came across another of his books, The Scortas’ Sun, which had its moments but was nowhere near as satisfying.

    1. Jackie says:

      Scott, Yes, the story with the footman was the most interesting aspect for me and I wish the whole book had been dedicated to investigating it.

      Sorry to hear his other book wasn’t as interesting. I’ll steer clear of Scortas’ Sun!

  4. stujallen says:

    Not one that has crossed my path Jackie but I tend to avoid to historic books even in translation and this has that sort of feel even in a fable like quality as scott put it ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, It is nice to be able to introduce you to some translated fiction :-)

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