THE SOMBER TONES OF WAR
pervade the hauntingly beautiful novel, By A Slow River
, by Philippe Claudel (exquisitely translated from the French by Hoyt Rogers), winner of the Prix Renaudot. While the thunderclaps of guns from the Great War light up the horizon of this novel, an unnamed French town a few kilometers away suffers casualties as grievous as those of the boys in the trenches. The town initially appears insulated from the war, but poison from the "invisible monster" seeps into the lifeblood of the town. Innocents die. Shadows cast by the war lengthen. The line of conflict blurs.
Changes are subtle at first. Recruits on their way to the front fill the café with "the unmistakable odor of stale wine, puke, dirty shirts, and cheap tobacco." They queue up outside the one-woman brothel. It gets worse. The maimed overflow the hospital wards. Roads are jammed with handcarts and trucks and stinking fumes. As Philippe Claudel writes, "The war not only turned out dead men by the ton, it also cut the world and all our memories in two, as though everything that had taken place before was crammed into a paradise at the bottom of some old pocket you'd never dare reach into again."
He examines not just the murder of the little girl known as Morning Glory, but discovers patterns and unexpected twinings of lives long gone.
The mesmerizing narrator is an anguished unnamed policeman. We wonder how a town of eight hundred men could produce such an astonishing lyrical voice. We are spellbound as he circles the truth, calling forth figures in the darkness. The policeman has a murder to reexamine, a story to tell, but in the telling he illuminates much more than he realizes about himself. He examines not just the murder of the little girl known as Morning Glory, but discovers patterns and unexpected twinings of lives long gone. He mourns his wife's loss, protesting against that loss by piecing together baffling connections.
For twenty years, he fingers bits of proof and testimony, going backward and forward in time, struggling to put what he finds in place, suffering the pain of remembering, threading through the tangle of lives, including his own.
The death of the narrator's young wife in childbirth alters the rest of his years. His capacity to love evaporates. Memories of the past eclipse the present. "If I write as if I'm a dead man, as a matter of fact, that's true, true as true can be. For a long time I've felt like one, just keeping up a pretense of living for a while longer. I'm serving a suspended sentence, you might say."
Reading By A Slow River, we are reminded of the general who waited twenty years for revenge in Sándor Márai's unforgettable novel, Embers. Like the general, the narrator of By A Slow River occupies a closed world. A single unexpected event cleaved his life in two, time stopped, and his existence on the other side is numbed by death.
The murder at the forefront of By A Slow River is that of the nearly ten-year-old Morning Glory, discovered with "purple blotches ringing her neck like a garland." She is found on the bank of a canal behind an open gate leading to the stately walls of the prosecutor's estate.
The haunting voice of the narrator tells us, "I'll be calling forth a lot of shadows, but one will be out front." This particular shadow belongs to Pierre-Ange Destinat, the prosecutor for more than thirty years, who "plied his trade like clockwork, never faltering, never breaking down."
Events can occur where the choices are few. Bloody moments can follow moments of grace. What can we do but howl with rage?
We question the truth, as the narrator does, probing deeper, opening locked drawers, passing again and again over a strange crime scene. The narrator's explorations devolve in surprising directions, and as a result the novel's meaning reaches well beyond the particular into the realm of the universal. Any place that collides with the carnage of war cannot escape defilement. War permeates the novel, but unlike the horrors in Ian McEwan's Atonement
or the trenches of Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, the field of battle is the quiet locale of ordinary lives.
In the end, the narrator concludes, life doesn't give you any warnings. Events can occur where the choices are few. Bloody moments can follow moments of grace. What can we do but howl with rage? At his dead wife's bedside he "howled at the street, howled with all the anger of a mistreated animal."
Even when we are able to make deliberate choices, they may be wrong and though we recognize they are wrong, it's often too late to turn back. The narrator's wry observation of a jailed Breton is telling: "He looked at me then with the absent smile of one who, having made his choice at a fork in the road, has continued too long to turn back."
Our singular tragedies cannot change the world. Neither the slaughter of thousands of innocents on a field of battle, nor of one small child on the bank of a slow canal can promise a change for the better in the human heart. The world is indifferent. It does not stop to mourn and, worse, it does not appear to remember.
The Great War ended with the illusion of peace, followed by another war to enforce that uncertain peace. "The world doesn't stop turning just because some of us are suffering," the narrator concludes. "And bastards will be bastards, no matter what."