I’ve said before that if knowing the plot of a novel in advance ruins it for you, there’s probably something wrong with the book. The best have a lot more going for them than just a story. Philippe Claudel’s Monsieur Linh And His Child falls into that category (despite a glaring weakness), so I feel justified in spoiling it for you.
La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh, as it is is known in the original French, has one tremendous asset: the description of a friendship between two elderly men.Monsieur Linh is a refugee, presumably in France, possibly from Vietnam, although Claudel doesn’t expressly tell us that.
The other elderly man, Monsieur Bark, recently lost his wife. He is as lonely and as much in need of a friend as Monsieur Linh and they become close, even though they don’t speak the same language. They communicate on a deeper level than speech, and Claudel observes this friendship beautifully.
Monsieur Linh finds his new country very difficult. All his family were killed in the old one apart from his baby granddaughter. He goes out for walks from his refugee centre with the baby and comes across Monsieur Bark.
However. (Here comes the spoiler).
Monsieur Linh And His Child ends with a double twist. Saying that must set the alarm bells ringing. Carefully crafted, observational, character-driven books like this don’t need a twist at the end, let alone two. They are completely out of place.
Monsieur Linh moves from one refugee centre to another and loses contact with Monsieur Bark. He doesn’t understand why.
He leaves this new home and wanders the city looking for his friend.
Guess what? He finds him. As someone who lived his whole life in a big city, I haven’t often bumped into friends in unfamiliar districts. Okay, it has happened, but up to this point Claudel has not relied on literary devices such as coincidence.
Then, just as they see each other, Monsieur Linh is run over as he crosses a busy road. My word, how unlucky is that!
And then, as we enter the final pages, the writer doesn’t actually have the guts to kill off Monsieur Linh, who lies in the street, bloodied, in the arms of his friend. We are left with the happy thought that everything may just be all right in the end.
There’s a literary term for tosh like this: deus ex machina, or ‘God from the machine’. It comes from Greek drama, where at the end of a play an actor playing God would be winched on stage by a crane to magically resolve the plot. Deus ex machina went out of fashion centuries ago when writers realised it was better to let the characters settle things one way or other themselves.
Then you don’t have to rely on massive coincidence and totally out-of-place devices such as your main character being run over.
Rules are there to be broken and there are many examples of deus ex machina in modern writing. Here, it comes across as Claudel not being able to think of way of ending what was up to this point a very good short read.
One other thing: a French book about refugees? Is a pattern emerging? Didn’t I just review a French novel about refugees?
Yes, but there is no connection between Monsieur Linh And His Child and Small Country by Gaël Faye. (It was a coincidence I read one after the other, honestly.)
Just because they share a subject doesn’t mean they share a theme. Small Country has the life of refugees very much centre stage and makes a political point both about where they come from and where they are going.
Claudel is the more skilled writer – his minor characters, for example, come across as more rounded characters. But he has simply used the subject of refugees as a tool to make his point about loneliness and friendship.
Any political points he makes, if he makes any, are subtle are entirely secondary.
It doesn’t make either book better or worse. All it means is they share a subject but very little else, apart from both being quite good. (But not perfect.)