Monday, March 26, 2012

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel

Translated from the French by Euan Cameron

“Sitting on this bench which, within the space of just two days, has become a familiar little spot, a chunk of floating wood he could cling to in the midst of a strange, broad, swirling torrent. And nestling cosily against him he clasps the last twig of the branch, sleeping its fearless sleep for the time being, without melancholy or sadness; that sleep of a satisfied infant, happy to have found the warmth of the skin it loves, its pleasant smoothness and the caress of a loving voice.”

Monsieur Linh has lost almost everything: his wife, his son, and even his city, as war has displaced him and made him a refugee in a French city. To his joy, he has one remaining connection to the past and a hope for the future: his infant granddaughter. Brought with him on the rough journey to France, his only concern is her safety and welfare. In the crowded refugee center, he quietly launders her baby clothes, holds her as she sleeps, and in his traditional garb, becomes an eccentric sight to the other visitors. During the day, he takes her out walking for fresh air.

“’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.’”

It’s on these walks that he finds the wood park bench described above, where he watches the city go by and tries to make sense of its foreign tongue. Soon he meets Monsieur Bark, another man beset by losses, and both find the bench to be their place to come to grips with their pasts and the uncertain future. They become virtually inseparable, despite the fact that neither of them can speak each other’s language. Theirs becomes a friendship made up of the language of nods, shared sighs, and companionship. And when difficult changes occur, this unique bond becomes unbreakable.

This is an impossibly elegant novel, one that makes you sort of wistful at the beauty of the words and their meaning. It’s only appropriate that this be an example of translated literature, because the translation of feelings, gestures and moods is at the heart of it, far beyond the translation of mere words. I actually (this is super corny) put it down and sighed a few times…it’s that gorgeous.

The author, Philippe Claudel, has crafted something that manages to combine melancholy and sentimentality without becoming mawkish. The writing is lean and powerful and each character retains a mystery. The mystery is what pushes you on to understand how each man will survive their loss, and how mysterious the nature of friendship can be. The novel asks the reader to examine what makes two people feel connected. Does loss leave a mark that only another kindred spirit can discern? Do the words we speak mean less than who we are? I couldn’t help but think that the story would be entirely different if the two men did share a language, and that Claudel may be commenting on how, very often, words can get in the way.

Special thanks to Paul Engels of MacLehose/Quercus in the UK for the review copy.

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