10 December 2013

Laurent Mauvignier: Des hommes (2009)

Much French literature has been written about World War One and World War Two, but very little about the Algerian War (1954–62). Laurent Mauvignier is a rare exception, and the Algerian War – its effects on those who took part in it and the effects on their families – is very much a part of the novel. Mauvignier's father was in it for twenty-eight years and killed himself when the author was an adolescent. Obviously he has no idea what part the war played in his father's suicide as he told him nothing about it, although his mother told him, for instance, that he was traumatised by seeing French soldiers trampling on a pregnant woman. His father brought back a large number of photos, although Mauvignier didn't know what they meant.

The unspoken, of course, is important to Mauvignier and is very much what the men in Des hommes carry around with them. This book attempts to give voice to the atrocies caused by this war, and by extension by war in general. Necessarily, it contains some horrifying scenes. And here, it's not the obvious provocative actions that can bring violence but the tiny, almost unseen and barely uttered actions and words.

As with other Mauvignier novels, there is a great deal of internal monologue here, and there are no markers for speech as the dialogue merges into the narrative. And a number of sentences remain either unfinished or are finished in the following sentence, which gives the narrative a greater realism.

Des hommes is divided into three main parts – 'Après-midi' and 'Soir' which are of equal length, and 'Nuit', which is the same length as the first two sections together. A fourth section – 'Matin' – is a kind of coda.

Bernard is now called Feu-de-Bois, an indication of how this old soldier – an alcoholic in his sixties – stinks. But this is the celebration of his sister Solange's sixtieth birthday in the reception room of the village with a number of his old soldier friends. His cousin Rabut does much of the narrating. I like the French expression péter un câble (something like 'bust a gasket'), which although not used here is what Feu-de-Bois does after the incomprehension that greets him giving Solange a very expensive brooch.

The 'Nuit' section is horrific and depicts, for instance, a French soldier shooting a fifteen-year-old boy through the head for no reason other than that he's old enough to be a 'terrorist', and the Algerian opposition stripping a living man's arm to the bone and massacring a village. No one is innocent in war is one chilling message.

But what exactly do the photos in Rabut's possession show of war, of the horror and fear? Nothing of it, only smiling faces, friends playing cards, the sea... Even those images betray nothing of the reality.

Like probably all of Laurent Mauvignier's books, this is amazing. He's definitely one of France's most significant living writers.

My other Mauvignier posts are below:

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Laurent Mauvignier: Loin d'eux
Laurent Mauvignier: Apprendre à Finir

Laurent Mauvignier: Ceux d'à côté
Laurent Mauvignier: Dans la foule
Laurent Mauvignier: Tout mon amour
Laurent Mauvignier: Seuls
Laurent Mauvignier: Continuer
Laurent Mauvignier: Ce que j'appelle oubli
Laurent Mauvignier: Autour du monde

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