Messieurs of reinvention
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.