Philippe Claudel (2011) Monsieur Linh and his Child translated by Euan Cameron; MacLehose Press, London; 144 pp.; ISBN 978-1-90669499-9 [originally published in French in 2005]
Monsieur Linh arrives as a refugee in a land where he does not speak the language and where the culture and people are strange and unreadable to him. Everyone he knew is dead, his village bombed out of existence, and his beloved son and daughter-in-law were killed in the fields as they worked. The only things that remain are an old photograph of him and his wife, a small bag of soil from his home village and, constantly in his arms, his three month old granddaughter.
Monsieur Linh’s home was in Vietnam and he arrives as a refugee in France. Neither country is named in the novel. This odd anonymity is a signature affectation in Philippe Claudel’s writing, but details in the story quickly make the locations evident.
At first Monsieur Linh is housed in a refugee dormitory with two Vietnamese families who treat him with respect, but over time the families ignore him and become dismissive of him as a crazy old man. He does not care as long as he can feed and tend his granddaughter, and he is quick to take action when he feels she is threatened.
The only French words he learns are a greeting. When he eventually plucks up the courage to make forays into the surrounding streets, he meets Monsieur Bark, a man recently widowed. As the weeks go by they meet regularly on a bench opposite the park where Monsieur Bark’s wife used to work. The two men have no language in common, and the few words they attempt end up confusing things further. Yet despite this a genuine friendship begins to grow and Monsieur Linh finds an anchor in his new country.
When he first arrived, Monsieur Linh noticed that the country had no smells, no aromas that he could link to place and time. He also notices that people do not speak to each other and are seemingly in a mad rush to get somewhere – somewhere he never comprehends. His friendship with Monsieur Bark begins to give life to this strange world in which he has landed: smells become evident and there is conversation after all, even if Monsieur Linh can follow none of it.
Just as Monsieur Linh is beginning to find his feet in his new life, he is abruptly torn away and removed to an old people’s home by officials from the Refugee Bureau. Cast adrift in a unfamiliar and vaguely threatening new place his only tie to the past is his granddaughter, mercifully allowed to remain with him. Her, and his dreams of the village that was once his world.
From his room Monsieur Linh can see the city spread out below and decides that he needs to search for Monsieur Bark and to re-establish their friendship. His attempt, and the resulting climax, bring both tragedy and hope.
Monsieur Linh and Monsieur Bark are older men who have lost the things most meaningful and dear to them. Only his granddaughter keeps Monsieur Linh focused and gives him hope, and we sense that for Monsieur Bark it is the growing friendship with Monsieur Linh that begins to kindle a new warmth in his life.
This is a short novel but beautifully written. It is a meditation on the cruelties of age and loss, and the importance and possibilities of hope. It is also a story about acceptance, of taking people as they are when we extend the hand of friendship. There is a sad twist at the end of this tale, but also hope for the power of friendship and the value of our common humanity.
The novel has been translated by Euan Cameron. Claudel’s other works have had a variety of translators, but always the exquisite writing shines through, so I assume that Claudel’s style has been captured well in this edition.
Monsieur Linh and his Child is a sad, affectionate story with likeable characters and genuine emotions. I found myself holding onto it as tightly as Monsieur Linh holds the little girl in his arms.