Monsieur Linh and His Child

Philippe Claudel

First Sentence:   An old man is standing on the after-deck of a ship.

This book is a gem. Easily one of the most affecting reads of the year for me, it tells the tale of Monsieur Linh (and surprise surprise, his child). Monsieur Linh finds himself in a strange country, unable to speak the language, unable to relate to anyone except this child who he clings to ceaselessly. Much like The Small Hand, it was the back of the book and the excerpt it offered, which told me straight off all I needed to know. Unlike The Small Hand  however, this book delivered throughout, and really all you need to read is those few sentences and you’ll know if you want to read the rest or not:

An old man is standing on the after-deck of a ship. In his arms he clasps a flimsy suitcase and a newborn baby, even lighter than the suitcase. The old man’s name is Monsieur Linh. He is the only person who knows this is his name because all those who once knew it are dead.

And that’s it. If you like that beginning, you’ll probably like everything that comes after. This book is near-perfect in every way.

* * * * *

Last Sentence:   Monsieur Linh’s grand-daughter.

Last Sentence explained:     So the main thrust of the story, apart from the relationship between Monsieur Linh and his granddaughter is the relationship between Monsieur Linh and Monsieur Bark, a man who he meets not long after arriving in the city. They meet regularly on a park bench and talk to each other even though neither one can speak the other’s language, and everything they say to each other may as well be said into thin air. Both have endured the ravages of war (albeit from opposite sides) and both have lost loved ones. With this common link, they cling to each other hopelessly. One day while looking out at the ocean Monsieur Bark speaks of his memories of fighting in the war, presumably in Vietnam, which is where presumably Monsieur Linh himself is from. The city Monsieur Linh and his granddaughter arrive in is presumably Paris but really it could be any city and it could be any war they speak of. A lot is implied in this novel and a lot is not explicitly declared. One day Monsieur Linh and Monsieur Bark get separated and Monsieur Linh is brought to some sort of hospital where he is trapped. Again, this is presumably some sort of mental institution but we’re never actually told. Time passes and eventually Monsieur Linh makes his escape in order to find his one and only friend in the city. It is when he finally sees Monsieur Bark, sitting on his bench across a busy road, that the real sucker punch comes. All this suggestion and presumption throughout the book has been about the location, and not the people. After Monsieur Linh attempts to cross the busy road and is hit by a car, something that feels almost inevitable, we learn the truth about his ‘child’. The truth that she is not his granddaughter at all, but rather, a doll. And now everything makes perfect, harrowing sense. All along he has been carrying nothing more than his granddaughter’s doll and the truth is almost unbearably heartbreaking. Even more so when you recall how he described finding ‘his granddaughter’ in the first place.

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.

It is, in hindsight, glaringly obvious looking back; the child never makes a sound, her food always dribbles out of her mouth whenever she is fed, the doctor completely ignores her when he is examining Monsieur Linh, Monsieur Bark himself actually calls her a doll when he buys her a new outfit, people seem to ignore the fact that there is a baby in the hospital etc. This ending though, for me, was perfect and worked a treat. And after all that sadness there is still hope as Monsieur Linh ends up surviving the accident and is carried off on a stretcher clutching his ‘granddaughter’. Really, really powerful.

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