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!

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