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…
Author: Philippe Claudel
Title: Monsieur Linh and His Child
Translated by Philippe Claudel
Publisher: Quercus/Maclehose Press, 2011
Source: Personal copy, purchased from the Book Depository, $11.61 AUD