Monday, September 17, 2012

Monsieur Linh and His Child

Philippe Claudel's Brodeck's Report is one of my absolute favorite books from the past five years. It's a powerful, beautifully written piece of fiction that hit home, and hit hard. It is one of few books that has truly haunted me and stayed with me over the years. But I read it almost by accident. That is, I read it with great reservations for two reasons: 1. The fact that I wasn't exactly a fan of Claudel's previous book By a Slow River, and 2. The fact that I read the book in Hebrew. I made the right decision - not only is Brodeck's Report a much stronger, better written novel, but the Hebrew translation was significantly smoother than the English translations of Claudel's works. And so when I saw that Monsieur Linh and His Child (הנכדה של מר לין; La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh in its original French) was recently translated into Hebrew, I bought it without a second thought*.

It strikes me again as the right decision. The writing style of this very short book is markedly different from that of either Brodeck's Report or By a Slow River, often opting for short, punchy sentences that stall the flow a little. It's an interesting stylistic choice that I quite liked, but I kept feeling like I would have struggled with it had I been reading the English translation**. Even so, this isn't a particularly fast book. There's a drawn out, restrained quality to it throughout the first half. The second half, meanwhile, picks up the pace somewhat, but it didn't really change the way Claudel wrote his story.

What is Monsieur Linh and His Child about? I'm not really sure. Is it about growing old? To a certain degree. About loss? To a much greater degree. Is it about friendship and family and immigration and change? It's all of these things. It's about the relationship between two older men who have no common tongue, yet somehow become friends through a muddled form of mutual understanding. It's about arriving in a new country when everything you knew has been destroyed behind you. It's about love.

But it's not exactly a clear, easy read. It's hard to go into details without revealing too much, but suffice to say that there is a lot more under the surface of the story than just the above-mentioned. There is, of course, the eponymous matter of Mr. Linh and his granddaughter, which forms the core of the novella. But there are aspects to the story that angered me, not so much because of how they were written, but rather because they reflected a certain aspect of humanity I did not want to glimpse. Claudel's presentations of old age and immigrants were at times exaggerated, but they also held a grain of truth that deeply unsettled me. In this respect, Monsieur Linh and His Child resembled Brodeck's Report much more than it resembled the somewhat plodding By a Slow River.

I liked Monsieur Linh and His Child. I liked it a lot. I liked the quiet way in which it told its story, I liked the unreliability of the narration, I liked the characters. It's very well contained, with hardly a single unnecessary word. It's slow, but maintains a steady flow nonetheless. It's emotional, but not trite. All in all, it's a fine book. Not on the level of Brodeck's Report nor, indeed, on the level of many other favorites, but it's a book I'm very glad to have read.

* Correction: I was a little annoyed that a 115 paged long paperback book with a large font and wide margins cost 88 NIS (almost $22).
** And yes, I realize that this says more about how differently my reading approach is in Hebrew vs. English than it does about the writing of the book itself...

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