Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2013

Monsieur Linh and His Child, by Philippe Claudel, translated by Euan Cameron


Monsieur Linh and his Child

Monsieur Linh and His Child is a perfect little book.  It’s only 130 pages long, but it’s exquisitely formed and obviously translated with great care so as to preserve the compassionate tone of the original.

Monsieur Linh is an elderly refugee from Vietnam.  His son and daughter-in-law have died in the war.

They set off one morning to work in the paddy fields, with the child, and by evening they had not returned.  The old man ran.  He was out of breath when he arrived at the rice field.  It was nothing but a vast hole, bubbling with water, with the corpse of a disembowelled buffalo lying on one side of the crater, its yoke broken in two like a bit of straw.  There was also his son’s body, and his son’s wife’s body, and further away the little girl, her eyes wide open, unharmed and wrapped in a blanket, and beside the child a doll, her own doll, the same size as her, which had had its head blown off by the blast of the bomb.  The little girl was ten days old. Her parents had called her Sang diû, which in the local language means ‘mild morning’.   This was the name they had given her , and then they had died.  Monsieur Linh had taken the child.  He set off.  He decided to leave forever.  For the child’s sake.  (p. 4)

The story begins with M. Linh’s journey by sea to France, where, still traumatised by the tragedy, he will not let the child out of his sight.  He stays in a reception centre for while, too terrified by the strangeness of everything  to set foot outside until he is persuaded that some fresh air would be good for the child.

And so it is that he meets Monsieur Bark, a gentle giant of a man, who breaks through the old man’s reserve and becomes his friend.  Neither of them understand a word the other says, but each recognises that they share a common bond of loss.  There is a sense that some sort of healing has begun when M. Linh is told that he must leave the reception centre for permanent accommodation.  This separation is almost unbearably poignant and it is a measure of the author and translator’s skill that the story  does not become sentimental or maudlin.   Instead it becomes an inspiring story of friendship, courage and generosity of spirit.

Monsieur Linh and His Child, however, is more – much more – than a heart-warming story.   Few books have the impact of this one in its closing pages.  But of course I can say no more for fear of spoilers, except that it is highly recommended.

One thing, I have been surprised to see how many readers have commented that M. Linh’s country of origin is not named.  While it is true that the novella is a fable that explores the universal experience of being a refugee,  of displacement, disorientation, acute loneliness and the inability of well-meaning support services to provide any succour, it seemed obvious to me that Monsieur Linh was from Vietnam, against whom (prior to the American war) the French waged a 20 year war to repress the independence movement.  Linh is a Vietnamese name, the child’s name is written in the Vietnamese alphabet, the herbs and spices that he longs to taste are from Vietnamese cuisine, and the other refugees are ‘boat people’ as Vietnamese refugees were in the 1970s.  The buffalo, the rice, the paddy fields, the little stools at the mobile restaurants – for me, these carefully chosen elements of the setting placed the story in Vietnam right from the start.

At the suggestion of Stu from Winston’s Dad, I read this book to celebrate the 5th birthday of British publisher Maclehose Press, and I’m glad I did.  It is a book that will stay with me for a long time…

Iris on Books reviewed it, and so did Maya Jaggi for The Guardian.  Stu did too, but beware, there’s a spoiler.

Author: Philippe Claudel
Title: Monsieur Linh and His Child
Translated by Philippe Claudel
Publisher: Quercus/Maclehose Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780857050991
Source: Personal copy

Availability

Fishpond: Monsieur Linh and His Child


Responses

  1. I was trawling over the Quercus booklist during the year and was delighted to find Phillipe Claudel. Two of his books would be in my ‘top ten’ for the year: Monsieur Linh and His Child and Brodeck’s Report. Both very powerful and thought provoking.

    • Apparently they form part of a trilogy? You are tempting me to buy the other two!

  2. I’m about to start my review copy of ‘The Investigation’, so if I enjoy that… ;)

    • I’ll watch out for that – don’t you love it when you discover a new author!

  3. Yes, I want to echo that comment. Thank you, Lisa, for bringing so many interesting new authors to my attention. And by the way, do you recall the suggestion that I should write a blog post about 7 writers? Well, my new site is finally up, and that’s exactly what I’ve done!

    • Congratulations, Dorothy, I am delighted to see this blog up and running and especially pleased to see the post about 7 Writers. Marion Halligan is one of my all-time favourite Australian authors with those novels SpiderCup and Wishbone!

  4. Great review! On my wish list it goes.

  5. Sounds like a lovely little book – and one that is very moving. I don’t think I can imagine the agony of losing family and being displaced as so many millions have been – and continue to be.

    I hope I will be able to find a copy of Monsieur Linh and His Child.

  6. I, too, found Monsieur Linh and His Child a most beautiful, poignant novella, achingly heartbreaking yet simultaneously joyous. It is at times inspiring in its humanity; at others, almost despairing. Claudel’s prose is deft, quiet, lyrical. And while seemingly ‘nothing happens’, it actually resonates with our universal themes of survival.

    • Well said, Heather. I won’t go into details here to avoid spoilers, but what made me despair was the reaction of the other families in the reception centre, and the place Monsieur Linh is taken to from the reception centre. Claudel was so economical in the way he showed this, but it was searing.

  7. Oh this sounds wonderful. That quote almost stopped my heart. I’ll include this in my translation challenge – thanks Lisa.

    • I’ll keep an eye out for your reaction on GoodReads, Annabel…

  8. I didn;t mention the spoiler but great ending isn’t it ,I like tony have his latest yet again he has taken another twist on what is considered everyday and made it seem different ,I loved linh as a character I never mention where he was from because he could be every refugee in a way I felt ,all the best stu

  9. Hi Lisa,

    I haven’t read that one, I’ve read Les âmes grises. (totally different). You make me want to read this one too.

    PS: The country might not be Vietnam. It could be Laos or Cambodia as well.

    • Hi Emma, I’m curious … is this author well-known/popular in France? I’m certainly keen to read more of his work.

      Re the country, yes, the country could be conceivably be Laos or Cambodia because there were ‘boat people’ refugees from both those former French possessions in the 1970s when they were dragged into the Vietnam War. But (trying to avoid spoilers) M. Bark’s guilt arises from suppression of insurrections in French Colonial Indochina and it’s my understanding that postwar French military intervention (after the Japanese defeat) was primarily in Vietnam because of the Communist Chinese and because Laos and Cambodia were of less interest because they were economically backward. But Lao is eliminated anyway because it is landlocked, so M. Linh could not have walked to the sea to visit his relation and later to find a boat. I think this point also makes Cambodia unlikely because it has only 400-odd km of coastline, much of it mountainous, whereas Vietnam has a long coastlne and there are many settlements which were bombed in the Vietnam War within walking distance of the sea.

      The languages of Laos and Cambodia are written with a non-Roman script i.e. អក្សរខ្មែរ (Khmer) ພາສາລາວ (Laotian). When words are Romanised, they use the French transcription system, which would allow for the circumflex on Sang diû. But still, it seems to me that while Claudel was interested in universalising his story, it makes it unnecesarily obscure to locate the story in Laos or Cambodia.

      Cheers
      Lisa

      • Yes, he’s famous.

        Ps: he’s one of the Philippes (Djian, Claudel, Besson, Delerm) I like them. I hope Djian gets more translated, he’s excellent.

        • Thanks, Emma, you’ll let us know on your blog when more are translated, oui?

  10. A fine review of a touching story, Lisa.


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