Messieurs of rein­ven­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kevin Ra­bal­ais

THERE is some­thing har­row­ing about the still­ness that runs through Mon­sieur Linh and His Child, the lat­est novel by French writer-film­maker Philippe Claudel. As in his pre­vi­ous novel, Brodeck’s Re­port, which won The In­de­pen­dent For­eign Fic­tion Prize, and his BAFTA-win­ning film I’ve Loved You So Long, Claudel fu­els this lat­est work with quiet mo­ments and sim­ple ges­tures.

There are times when his sparse style gives the reader the sen­sa­tion that ev­ery­thing is meant to be read as sym­bol. While this can some­times feel heavy handed, Claudel ul­ti­mately gives us a com­plex and ten­der novel about ex­ile, fam­ily and un­ex­pected friend­ship. Early on, Claudel writes about the shock of ar­rival that his ti­tle char­ac­ter faces af­ter flee­ing his war-torn home­land. Mon­sieur Linh and his six-weekold grand­child have left an un­named coun­try for an­other uniden­ti­fied place.

Be­sides hav­ing to care for the child and be­ing a phys­i­cal and lin­guis­tic out­sider, he also bears a new sta­tus, that of refugee:

It’s in a sim­i­lar dream­like state that we read this slim, haunt­ing novel. The lulling, pre­cise tone will be fa­mil­iar to read­ers of the au­thor’s pre­vi­ous nov­els, Grey Souls and Brodeck’s Re­port. Claudel’s work as a film­maker gives him a keen eye for the type of small de­tails he uses to con­struct Mon­sieur Linh and His Child. ‘‘ An old man is stand­ing on the af­ter-deck of a ship,’’ the novel be­gins. ‘‘ In his arms he clasps a flimsy suit­case and a new­born baby, even lighter than the suit­case. The old man’s name is Mon­sieur Linh. He is the only per­son who knows this is his name be­cause all those who It is like be­ing born a sec­ond time. No­body pays any at­ten­tion to any­one else . . . [Mon­sieur Linh] thinks back to his vil­lage rather as one thinks of a dream one has had and which one is not quite sure whether it re­ally is a dream or lost re­al­ity. once knew it are dead.’’ The child’s par­ents have died in an un­named war. She is six weeks old when this jour­ney into ex­ile be­gins and, as the reader ad­vances through the short chap­ters, Claudel drops sub­tle de­tails about her that point to­wards a mys­tery about Mon­sieur Linh’s past. Thou­sands of kilo­me­tres from his home­land, Mon­sieur Linh must learn to live in a coun­try where ‘‘ Noth­ing is like any­thing he knows’’.

Be­sides the new-found bar­ri­ers of lan­guage and cul­ture, Mon­sieur Linh and his grand­child are forced to live in a de­ten­tion cen­tre for refugees, and there are mo­ments of this novel that re­call Lloyd Jones’s ma­jes­tic Hand Me Down World (2010).

Not long af­ter his ar­rival, Mon­sieur Linh meets Mon­sieur Bark, a wid­ower from the host coun­try who has dif­fi­cul­ties speak­ing about his own past. De­spite their lack of a shared lan­guage, the two feel an im­me­di­ate bond, and the novel ad­vances through their daily park bench meet­ings. Claudel chron­i­cles with ten­der per­cep­tion the re­la­tion­ship be­tween these men. He writes with beauty about the friend­ship of those who, un­able to com­mu­ni­cate but left with noth­ing but one an­other, slowly learn to form a fam­ily.

In this novel, as in his other work, Claudel places his char­ac­ters in sit­u­a­tions where they must leave one life be­hind to start anew. The friend­ship be­tween the messieurs Linh and Bark stands at the heart of the novel, and Claudel is at his best when ex­am­in­ing the small mo­ments they share. Their in­abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate ver­bally means they must forge ways to un­der­stand one an­other, and it is in their at­tempts to lo­cate a uni­ver­sal lan­guage that Claudel ex­am­ines the trauma of ge­o­graph­i­cal and emo­tional ex­ile. What the old man senses is that the tone of Mon­sieur Bark’s voice de­notes sad­ness, a deep melan­choly, a sort of wound the voice ac­cen­tu­ates, which ac­com­pa­nies it be­yond words and lan­guage, some­thing that in­fuses it just as the sap in­fuses a tree with­out one see­ing it.

The ultimate ef­fect of Mon­sieur Linh and His Child comes only af­ter we close its cov­ers. This is due, in part, to a de­tail whose im­pli­ca­tions Claudel re­veals sub­tly through­out the pages and that the at­ten­tive reader will grasp early. Such a nar­ra­tive trick would be gim­micky in the hands of a lesser writer and would have been im­pos­si­ble for Claudel to por­tray in film, but in his lat­est work of fic­tion he re­minds us why he is one of the most in­ven­tive writers in Europe to­day. Kevin Ra­bal­ais teaches lit­er­a­ture and writ­ing in the Abbey Pro­gram in Pontlevoy, France.

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