Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2021

The Ogre, by Michel Tournier, translated by Barbara Bray

I read this book haunted by the photo on the front cover.  The cover design is by Rebecca S Neimark from Twenty-Six Letters and the photo is titled ‘Fourteen year-old prisoners, members of Hitler’s ‘Air Guard’, from Archive Photos.  Their faces show bewilderment, truculence and naïve amusement at the predicament they find themselves in.  They are so young yet they represent both evil and innocence.  I wonder what became of them.

Reminding me that books were chosen for 1001 Books for their place in the history of the novel, The Ogre by Michel Tournier (1924-2016) is included because it marks a departure in style for French Literature.

The flamboyant baroque novels of Michel Tournier came as a breath of fresh air to a French literary scene dominated by the austere nouveau roman.  The Ogre, a heady mix of war story, reworked myth and sexual perversion, was Tournier’s second novel. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, ABC Books, 2006, p.620)

The novel won the Prix Goncourt in 1970, and Wikipedia also tells me that Tournier was a contender for the Nobel Prize. (See here).

The central character, Abel Tiffauges, is warped by his own experiences and by the evil regime.  He narrates the first third of the novel, (130 pages) in the chapter titled ‘Sinister Writings of Abel Tiffauges’ so that the reader is on alert from the outset.  Tiffauges grows up lonely and alienated because he is bullied for his stupidity and his appearance, and he drifts into employment as a garage mechanic.  He has an unhealthy attraction to young children, and thinks he has had an existential experience when he holds an injured youth in his arms… he relates this to the legend of St Christopher and thenceforth looks for supernatural signs that he is a child-bearer.

It is his girlfriend who recognises that there is something odd about this deceptively gentle giant: she christens him The Ogre.  He evades trial for rape by the outbreak of WW2 and his removal to Germany as a POW.  On the Rhine he is trained to manage the pigeons used for communication, and his obsessive tenderness in caring for them and his pragmatism about eating them is a portent of what is to come, caring for children destined to become soldiers while indifferent to their fate and the fate of other children under the Nazis.

He likes Germany:

Unlike the oceanic land of France, shrouded in mists, its lines blurred by receding shades, continental Germany, more harsh and rudimentary, was the country of strong, simplified, stylised drawing, easily read and remembered.

In France things got lost in impressions, vague gestures, incomplete wholes, in murky skies and infinities of tenderness.  The Frenchman had a horror of position, uniform, strictly defined place in organisation or hierarchy.  A French postman always liked to remind people, by a certain unbuttoned look to his uniform, that he was also a father, a voter and a bowling enthusiast.  Whereas the German postman, bundled up in his smart uniform, exactly coincided with his role.  Similarly the German housewife, schoolboy, chimney sweep or businessman were all more housewife, schoolboy, chimney sweep or businessman than their French counterparts.  And while the French propensity led to the weakness of faded colours, spinelessness, dangerous laxities like promiscuity, dirt and cowardice, Germany was always in danger of becoming a theatre of grimace and caricature, as demonstrated by her army, a fine collection of gargoyles, from the oxlike sergeant major to the corseted and monocled officer.  (p. 179)

By a series of odd but reasonably credible events, Tiffauges becomes a ranger on Hermann Goëring’s estate in Prussia, where he is trusted so much that no one ever notices when he goes missing on his own private missions to explore.  When the war comes closer and the hunting lodge is no longer safe, he is sent instead to the Kaltenborn fortress to help Professor Doctor Blaettchen measure the racial characteristics of children for selection into the Napola. This institution—one of many SS-initiated schools that indoctrinated boys to make them ruthless supporters of Nazism—was training boys to become soldiers against the Soviets.  As the tide turns against Germany and the willingness of families to sacrifice their boys wanes, Tiffauges uses skills honed in the eugenics laboratory, to identify and kidnap suitably Aryan children for the school.  He still hates the Nazis, but not his own role in their atrocities because of his bizarre belief that a supernatural power has revealed to him signs and symbols which will deliver him a heroic moment:

It was true that the SS filled him with the most acute repugnance.  But the Napola. whose discipline, uniforms and crazy songs went against all his inclinations and anarchist beliefs, forced him to make every possible allowance because it was so obviously a machine for both subjecting and exalting fresh and innocent flesh. Blaettchen’s maniac erudition, on the fringes of sadism and crime, carried this subjection and exaltation to their highest pitch. (p.253)

The novel suffuses Germanic myth amid the obscene reality of Tiffauges wartime experiences, and it’s a gruelling novel to read.  It’s a chilling reminder that certain types of people flourish in evil regimes.

Author: Michel Tournier
Title: The Ogre (Le Roi des Aulnes) a.k.a. The Erl-King
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972, first published 1970
ISBN: 9780801855900, pbk., 373 pages
Source: Personal copy, probably bought from the Book Depository

 


Responses

  1. I don’t need gruelling just now, but I will return to this. Thank you for such a thoughtful review.

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    • That was why I read it with breaks in between to read the more light-hearted Dancing on Coral!

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  2. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone around me reading Michel Tournier, except Vendredi ou la Vie sauvage that is on middle school syllabi.

    I’m really not in the mood at the moment to read something so dark. We’re expecting a third lockdown and it’s starting to wear us down…

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    • Lockdown isn’t easy, and probably worse for you than for me because you have children at home as well.
      But if France can enforce it, it works. Melbourne proves that.

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      • The last lockdown was a softer one, meaning that my son kept going to highschool. (a blessing for him, really and they’ve had one case in 500 students since January, so the cost vs benefit is clearly in favour of going to school) But universities (“le supérieur” as they call it) have not reopen. Students are at home, behind their computer…

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        • It’s the emergence of these new strains that is most worrying.

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  3. The film of this novel was released in 1996, and after watching it I read the book (in the original French). I remember finding both the film and the book deeply disturbing. I should probably go back and watch and read them again. It’s a pity that the title was changed for the English versions, and oddly enough for the German version of the film, which was called “Der Unhold” (also “The Ogre”), whereas “Der Erlkönig” (the German title for the translation of the book) would have been more fitting.

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    • It is disturbing, I’m not in a hurry to read it again.
      I know what you mean about the title, but TBH, I wouldn’t have even looked at the blurb of a book called The Erl-King. I would have assumed it was some kind of fantasy.

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      • Fair point, I hadn’t thought of that. But in the French original, “ogre” is the fourth word of the text, and Parts 4 and 5 are called “L’Ogre de Rominten” and “L’Ogre de Kaltenborn”, so the author could have called the novel “L’Ogre” if he had wanted to. For some reason he preferred “Le Roi des Aulnes”, so I think the literal translation, “The King of the Alders”, would have been better for the English translation. But of course Barbara Bray may have had good reasons for preferring “The Ogre” – linking it to the film, perhaps.

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        • Is the film any good?

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          • I wish I could remember more about the film! But the DVD is still available in Germany, so I’ve ordered a copy. I’ll let you know when I’ve watched it. In the meantime I’m re-reading the book and finding it fascinating.

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            • It’s made me realise that I need to read more of Goethe than just The Sorrows of Young Werther.

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              • The film is half fairy-tale, half nightmare, with the nightmare elements taking over as the story goes on. John Malkovich is very good as Abel, and there are several excellent German actors too (notably Dieter Laser, better known for the notorious “Human Centipede”). The music (Michael Nyman) and the cinematography are also impressive. In all, a good attempt at filming a novel which you would think unfilmable.

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                • I’ll see if I can get a copy …thanks!

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  4. This book contains one of my all-time favourite sentences: “Purity is the malign inversion of innocence.” It opens a wonderful paragraph (on page 70 of the old Methuen edition) that captures the essence of fundamentalism.

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    • Yes, that’s right. It’s a book that makes one feel very uneasy on so many levels.

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      • There’s another remarkable sentence on p57 of the French edition: “Doubtless there is nothing more arousing in a man’s life than the accidental discovery of the perversion to which he is doomed.”

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        • Yes… nothing is (in English anyway) really explicit, but there’s enough hinted at, to add ‘perversion’ to his distasteful characteristics. (I’m choosing my words carefully, to avoid the attention of unpleasant visitors to this site).
          I confess, I think that the addition of this element to his character muddies the water a bit. It is always a risk when fiction about this era creates abnormal characters when really, what was so horrific was the reality— that it was ordinary people, not monsters, who committed the atrocities.

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  5. Too dark for me, too, I’m afraid.

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    • It is dark. But occasionally it’s weirdly droll too.

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  6. Re the DVD of The Ogre, the English-language version seems to be unavailable at the moment, but the German DVD on Zweitausendeins Edition has the English-language soundtrack which you can select from the start menu.

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    • Thanks, Paul, that is what I would watch anyway… I prefer to watch with subtitles:). What is the German title for it so that I can search for a supplier, please?

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      • Oh sorry, it’s “Der Unhold”. Also it’s a PAL Region 2 DVD so you’ll need a multiregion player. I got my copy from jpc.de which has both German- and English-speaking sections.

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        • We’ve got a multi region player, our own region has hardly anything interesting to watch…
          I’ve found a copy at our local eBay… fingers crossed!

          Liked by 1 person


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