Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: "Alex" by Pierre Lemaitre

Alex (2011)
Pierre Lemaitre (1951)

Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

376 pages

The set-up and plot seem clear enough.

Barely a half-dozen pages into Pierre Lemaitre’s crime novel Alex, the title character finds herself kidnapped off the street as she walks home from a restaurant. Brutally beaten, bound and gagged, she lies dazed in the back of a van as it speeds off into the night. As she passes out, her only thought is that she wants to live.

A page or two later we meet the detective assigned to her case, Camille. He has only recently rejoined the Brigade criminelle in Paris, after having taken time off to recover from the shocking death of his wife, who had been kidnapped and murdered. As he races against time to track down the missing victim, he cannot avoid mixing his thoughts and speculations on this new case with the painful memories of his wife.

For a reader of crime novels, the case seems clear enough: who has kidnapped Alex, where is she, and how will the detective find her alive?

Pretty straightforward, right?

Not so much. Lemitre soon turns this conventional kidnapping plot on its head, as the detective discovers that the real questions boil down to why. Like a parent whose child asks “why’” in response to every answer, Camille finds that each time he thinks he has taken a step closer to solving the case, a deeper mystery presents itself. The victim, who Camille at first so conflates with the bitter and raw images of his own wife’s death that he struggles to separate the two women in his mind, begins to take on her own personality, her own existence. The facts he gradually uncovers of her life up to the point of the kidnapping force Camille to focus on her as an individual, distinct from his memories of his wife, however similar the two crimes may have at first appeared to be.

This novel is not for the faint of heart, as the spasms of violence are shocking and extreme. But for those who can stand the grisly bits, Lemaitre provides an artfully created and entertaining page-tuner that will hold your attention through to the end.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: "Fear" by Gabriel Chevallier

Fear: A Novel of World War I (1930)  

Gabriel Chevallier (1895-1969)

305 pages
[Our enemies] are … the children of the same God [as we are]. And God, the father, presides over the fratricidal struggle of his own children, and the victories on both sides. He’s just as happy whichever army sings the Te Deum. And you, one of the just, you pray to him to ruin and annihilate other just men. How do you expect me to make sense of that? [116]
Jean Dartemont, a French soldier convalescing from shrapnel wounds suffered during a bloody and chaotic battle of the First World War, confronts a hospital chaplain with this question. The chaplain has come to ask the soldier to repent of his sins, but Dartemont, fresh from the horror of the front lines, can only focus on “the greatest sin, in the eyes of the Church and the eyes of man, [which] is to kill your brother [and] which the Church is ordering” him to do. (116) He finds himself unable to sway the priest’s views of the war as just and right however; and, as he talks to the hospital nurses, and later his family and friends, he encounters this same support for the war again and again. In this support he recognizes, and laments, the success that French political and cultural leaders have had in creating a patriotic fervor around the righteousness of the war, and an image of the fighting as the latest heroic adventure in a centuries-long history of French military successes. He and his fellow soldiers at the front, by contrast, have found that the slaughter and destruction they witness and participate in has quickly disabused them of these sorts of idealistic beliefs.

In the autobiographical novel Fear, author Gabriel Chevallier tells the story of his experiences as a soldier during World War I, both his time at the front lines and on leave back among the civilian population, through the character of Dartemont. The dichotomy between the image of the war among the general public in France and the reality of the war for the soldiers fighting it, plays a central role in the novel. More generally, the reader gets a first-hand account of the horrific destruction the front-line soldiers faced in the First World War.

The story opens with proclamations of war being displayed on walls throughout Dartemont’s hometown, unleashing a tidal wave of excitement and expectation. Dartemont finds himself put off by the aggressive frenzy of the public he witnesses in the sudden rush to go to war; he is convinced that the political leadership in France, as well as that in all the other countries involved in the conflict, have fed their populations lies and miss-conceptions in order to drum-up support for an unnecessary war. Despite Dartemont’s recognition of the propaganda that has created a false image and justification for the war, once conscripted into the army even he can’t help but succumb to the spirit of adventure that the public and his fellow soldiers view in the conflict. He buys into the idea that the war will not last long, and looks forward to what he calls his “baptism of fire.” (39)

Upon finally reaching the front, however, his excitement quickly turns sour, as he experiences first-hand the unimaginable devastation of the war. Looking out across the no-man’s-land beyond the front-line trench he stands in, he discovers
[a] new and greater horror: the plain was blue. The plain was covered with our comrades [in their blue uniforms], cut down by machine guns, their faces in the mud, arses in the air, indecent, grotesque like puppets, but pitiable like men….(62)
 Each day he watches as the body count rises rapidly with each ineffective and seemingly senseless attempt to attack the German trenches, successive waves of French soldiers mowed down by the German machine guns.

In place of the feeling of adventure Dartemont had brought onto the war, a new, almost paralyzing sensation grows: Fear. He finds himself struggling with and analyzing this fear, trying to understand how he --- how any soldier --- can go forward into the almost certain death of heavy shelling and machine guns that awaits them when they climb forward out of the trenches to attack. Then, when an injury sends him first to a hospital far from the front, and later on a period of leave before he returns to the front, Dartemont discovers to his dismay and frustration that talking about this fear, about the dominant emotion he has felt during the war, is impossible. The people back home, well-steeped in propaganda that has filled them with a blind patriotism and an unrealistically impression of the war as a heroic adventure, view Dartemont’s descriptions of the reality of the fighting and the emotions it triggers for the soldiers as simple cowardice on his part.

Dartemont’s disgust is not limited to the civilian public however. He struggles also to understand how he and his fellow soldiers --- on both sides of the front --- don’t turn on their superiors, despite the horror of the battles and the apparently senseless decisions of their commanders to continue to stage attacks, when each attack by either side simply re-validates the obvious: the advantage in the war is with those who defend. Chevallier, as expressed through Dartemont, clearly comes away from his experiences in the war with a dark and deeply cynical vision of mankind:
Men are stupid and ignorant. That is why they suffer. Instead of thinking, they believe all that they are told, all that they are taught. They choose their lords and masters without judging them, with a fatal taste for slavery.
Men are sheep. This fact makes armies and wars possible. They die the victims of their own stupid docility.
When you have seen war as I have just seen it, you ask yourself: ‘How can we put up with such a thing? What frontier traced on a map, what national honour could possible justify it? How can what is nothing but banditry be dressed up as an ideal, and allowed to happen?’(7)

Fear presents a powerful statement against the insanity of war. Chevallier has written a novel that gives us an up-close and intimate look at the fighting along the front lines during World War I, and its effects on the soldiers caught up in the maelstrom. The story also takes us back home with the soldiers, where they discover that even their eyewitness accounts fail to sway the public’s deeply engrained belief in the fundamental righteousness and inevitable victory that their government has promised in its propaganda. Not surprisingly, Chevallier recalls in a preface to the 1953 edition of the book that “its author was sometimes taken to task” for what he wrote, though he adds that “those who fought as infantrymen … wrote [to him]: ‘True! This is what we experienced but could not express.’” (xiv) In a sense these reactions together represent a further manifestation of the idea expressed in the book that the general public have a false understanding of the reality of war experienced by soldiers at the front.

In that preface Chevallier also points out that the tone of the novel now strikes him as containing the “arrogance of youth,” that his Dartemont is “still na├»ve enough to believe that everything is susceptible to reason.” (xiv) Certainly the story gives no quarter in its condemnation of people’s shallowness and muddle-headedness, as the ‘Men are stupid and ignorant…’ quote above makes clear. From the vantage point of a century later, one can question the certainty with which Dartemont broadly condemns any nation for going to war; should a country not go to war to stop a Hitler, for example? But remembering the context in which the book was written, the saber-rattling and bravado that allowed the European continent to move seemingly inexorably into the Great War (a process described wonderfully in Ken Follett’s historical novel of the First World War, Fall of Giants, which I reviewed in the previous post), and the willingness of political and military leaders on both sides to allow the fighting to slide into a grotesque war of attrition, the tone seems well-matched to what Chevallier apparently experienced.

For me this story provides a compelling sequel to Mark Twain’s The War Prayer, written just a couple of decades earlier, though I have no knowledge of whether Chevallier was aware of the book. In Twain’s story (more fully reviewed in this earlier post), a public has been whipped into a frenzy to fight and defeat their enemy. After a minister gives a fiery sermon to his congregation, proclaiming the righteousness of the war and praying for God’s aid in vanquishing the enemy, an old man enters the church and walks slowly up to the pulpit. He commands the people to listen to “the unspoken part of the prayer” that God also heard: the destruction, the death, the horror that they have asked of him. In Fear, Chevallier takes us forward into the actual execution of the war, and so into the truth of all that the old man described.

Other reviews / information:
*This novel is yet another wonderful selection from the NYRB Classics collection.

*As I was reading this book, I stumbled across an article in National Geographic magazine, The Hidden World of the Great War, that describes the underground life of soldiers in the trenches, and recalls some of the challenges they faced beyond the fighting itself, as Chevallier describes in his autobiographical novel.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf