Friday, May 27, 2011

Monsieur Linh and His Child

This slight novel - only 130 pages - is the third of the trilogy written by Philippe Claudel which includes Grey Souls and the inestimable Brodeck's Report.   The thread linking the three novels - though Monsier Linh is more a novella - is survival, specifically the survival of war and the associated guilt of surviving.

Written with his accustomed lack of specificity which in itself contributes so much to the narrative lifting it from a simple story to the more involved realm of ideas, it clearly however concerns the French war in Indochina - modern Vietnam - and a city, possibly Paris or Marseilles.   Monsieur Linh has lost everyone who knows him in his little bombed-out village with the exception of his grand-daughter from whom he refuses to be separated even for a minute.   With great delicacy of language and economy of prose, Claudel chronicles his bewilderment in a city where he understands not a word of the language, finds the food unpalatable and is confused by the ministrations of the impersonal though benign officials caring for refugees from the war.

He meets then on a street bench the second character of the book, a Monsieur Bark with whom he establishes an extraordinary friendship given that neither understands a word the other is saying but rather rely on tone of voice and body language.   Monsieur Bark is also bereaved - his wife has just died - and clearly finds relief in pouring out his heart to this odd refugee clutching possessively his little grand-daughter.   It is a measure of Philippe Claudel's consummate command of language that we acquire an intimate understanding of the two men in such few pages.   There is an astonishing dream sequence in which Monsieur Linh brings Monsieur Bark to his village and the contrast of the world he has lost with the bleakness of the modern city is a very powerful antiwar sequence.   Monsieur Linh's one link to his vanished world is his adored baby grand-daughter.

The book has an extraordinary twist but even if you spot it coming, it in no way detracts from this brilliant and moving story.   On the contrary, when I came to it, I immediately went back and reread the entire novella!

Man Booker International Prize

I have disagreed with Carmen Callil from time to time both in her role as an author and that of publisher but this time my sincerest congratulations to her on the stance she has taken in resigning from the judging panel because of its decision to award the Man Booker International Prize to Philip Roth.  

Granted that the shortlist for the prize was not earth-shaking with people like Philip Pullman,  Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler figuring but Roth!!   As Callil said, 'he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book.   Its as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe'.   Beautiful!   Well done Carmen!

Monday, May 2, 2011


A quick round-up for any of you that didn't do the weekly grind through the papers!  

Phillippe Claudel, author of the amazing Brodeck's Report, has a new novel out in translation, Monsieur Linh and His Child.   According to the reviewers it is written with his customary lack of specificity that intrigues me and it is the second part of the haunting trilogy that concluded with Brodeck and started with Grey Souls.  Anne Enright gets massive coverage for her new novel, Forgotten Waltz.   This promises to be less dark than The Gathering but with plenty of her caustic wit, this one using the Celtic Tiger economy as her backdrop.
The Guardian persists with its genuflections to the gods of English writing with a panegyric of Christopher Hitchens by Martin Amis last week.   One would almost be forgiven for thinking the Hitch had passed on and this was his eulogy.   Or maybe Amis just wants the 'great man' to know what a sound fellow he, Amis, is.   Amis quotes, at length, various examples of what he considers great witticisms by Hitchens, the 'rebel', as he calls him.   It is a grave error to confuse witticism with plain rudeness.   Far cleverer ripostes can be heard in any Dublin pub!

I cannot pass over the brief dismissal of Damon Galgut and his book, In a Strange Room, by Alfred Hickling.   This was one of the titles nominated for the Booker and is Galgut at his best.   It is a departure from his normal stamping ground of post apartheid South Africa, being set worldwide from Greece to India and finally Africa. The narrator always referred to as ‘he’, in the third person but who not surprisingly is called Damon - a device popular also with Paul Auster -  is an inveterate traveller who on each trip either meets or is joined by different characters. The very act of travelling has a curious meaning for him. He says at one point that ‘everything at times of transition takes on a symbolic weight and power. But this too is why he travels. The world you’re moving through flows into another one inside…’ So the reality of travel becomes fiction and memory. Borders are lines on a map but also drawn inside himself somewhere. Memory is a key factor in his writing and he refers to ‘him’, the traveller, as buried under his skin. He frequently claims he cannot remember some details, that there is a memory gap as if he were a travel writer not telling a story.

The book is divided into three sections titled the The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian. If one could have any quarrel with Galgut is that these sections might well, with editing, have worked almost better as three novellas. Tightened up to that format, they would almost have a ring of Zweig. However, in their present format what obviously links them is our narrator. True to his propensity for travel caused by restlessness when too long at home, he is further uncomfortable in any relationship that might tie him in any way. This can lead to a vacillation that at times makes one want to shake him but it is a state of mind that Galgut is very at ease writing about.  At times, one almost feels one is back with the Good Doctor – also shortlisted for
the Booker - so maybe Galgut puts more of himself into his main characters either consciously or unconsciously.

The characters Damon meets and links up with on his travels are distinct and remarkable. It is a tribute to his skill that they stay in one’s mind long after the book is finished almost like old friends. Though in Damon’s case, none of them are destined ever to be old friends and his depiction of their foibles and idiosyncracies is
masterly. Galgut’s writing has justly been described as both powerful and hypnotic and I would defy anyone to read him and not feel a personal attachment to some of his thoughts.