‘Monsieur Linh and his child’ by Philippe Claudel

monsieur-linh-and-his-childThis French novella is so good that as soon as I finished the last page I skipped it straight to the front of my reviewing list and sat down to write about it.

Monsieur Linh is an elderly refugee fleeing his war-torn country with only some old clothes, a handful of soil from his village, a photograph of his deceased wife, and his six-week-old baby granddaughter. The baby’s parents, Monsieur Linh’s son and daughter-in-law, were killed in a bomb blast, and the baby is the only family he has left. Terrified of the country he seeks refuge in, he is estranged from everyone he meets, as he does not understand the language or the behaviour of the natives. In turn, the natives are mostly hostile, mocking or indifferent towards him. Monsieur Linh spends his days in this strange new country gently and dilligently caring for his granddaughter: feeding her, cleaning her and falling asleep next to her. She is keeping him alive – he looks after himself only in order to protect her and to see her grow to adulthood.

“I am your grandfather,” Monsieur Linh tells her, “and we are together, there are two of us, the only two, the last two. But don’t be afraid, I am here, nothing can happen to you. I am old, but I’ll still have enough strength, as long as it is needed, as long as you are a little green mango in need of an old mango tree.”

On a walk around the streets of his new home, Monsieur Linh meets a man named Monsieur Bark in a chance encounter. Monsieur Bark is a  native who shows him kindness, and like Linh is also a widower. Although they do not speak each other’s language, the two men become friends. They share cigarettes, food and drink, and communicate through universal physical gestures of respect, affection and solidarity – a bow, a comforting hand on the shoulder. But even as Monsieur Linh begins to emerge out of his shell, their friendship is threatened.

Monsieur Linh and his child is deceptively simple in style and plot and beautifully written. It has a devastating twist, only revealed right at the end, and in the middle of a paragraph so that the reader’s confused mind does a double-take. The twist casts everything that went before it in a completely different light. Clues as to what the twist might be were present earlier in the book, but were so incredibly skilfully presented that I didn’t add them together to get the truth. The twist makes the story even more poignant, and helps us to understand the way that some of the characters act towards Linh.

Neither Linh’s native country nor the country of refuge are named, but they are (probably, respectively) Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia and France, following the fallout from the Indochina Wars. The countries do not need to be explicitly named because the situations warring countries find themselves in have universal relevance – I can imagine, with a few tweaks, Indochina and France being replaced by Afghanistan and the UK or the US, for example. The story illustrates the terrible emotional damage that war inflicts on both victims (trauma) and agressors (guilt). It also provides some perspective to the current refugee crisis and our responses to it. Monsier Linh is a beneficiary of charity of sorts from the country that he flees to, but he also helps the Frenchman to regain his own humanity.

Why does this sort of short, simple, powerful fable not get written in the English language very often in modern times? Maybe we are reluctant to read novellas, thinking that short books are not worth bothering with. We might want more pages for our money: I once worked in a bookshop where a customer got outraged at the idea of paying £7 for a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The waste land because it had less pages than the average book. Or perhaps we think books that are short in length are also stunted on drama. The bestsellers that get the media hype are often blockbuster epics like Game of thrones or Harry Potter, long series of books released over years. But dismissing shorter fiction is a mistake. Novellas, freed from baggy scene-fillers and capable of being read in one go in the time it would take to watch a film, can pack a powerfully intense emotional punch. Some of my favourite books are either novellas or short novels (The hen who dreamed she could fly, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Irène Némirovsky’s Fire in the blood). Plus, many great classics of literature technically count as novellas, including Animal farm, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and A Christmas carol.

Humane and gently optimistic without being dull, trite or sentimental – Monsieur Linh and his child is a true tonic.

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