Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The great swindle by Pierre Lemaitre

This novel, The great swindle, by an acclaimed French writer won us over completely. It is a war story showing us a microcosm of human nature with real drama and violence and exploitation of people. It also is visceral and smelly at times. There are eccentric characters who are slightly larger than life and reminded us of characters from other novels and plays such as in works by Camus and Stendahl. Even similarity to the play Les Miserables was mentioned. We think that Lemaitre plays with you as a reader too for instance there is a reference to Austen’s Pride and prejudice in Chapter 2 when he is talking about Pradelle:

Anyone will tell you that a man in possession of such good looks and such a name must be in want of a fortune. (6% ).

Celeste suggested it and we all complimented her for it. It was written in French and the translation by Frank Wynne was good. It is entitled Au revoir la-haut (Goodbye until we meet in heaven). Lemaitre has won 3 awards with this novel including the 2013 Prix Goncourt.  He is a former literature teacher and now writes fulltime. This novel in film version is to be released in 2017.

This story is complex. Albert Maillard and Edouard Pericourt are very young French soldiers in the last few days of WW1. Albert is rescued by Edouard after being buried alive and then Albert befriends Edouard and looks after him when they are demobbed.  Edouard has been very badly disfigured in a final act of war by their mutual enemy, Lieutenant Pradelle. Edouard refuses to undergo surgery to alleviate some of his injuries. So he suffers terribly and Albert suffers too in trying to help him.

Albert discovers that Lieutenant Pradelle has been involved in both of their lives basically trying to kill each of them. D’Aulnay-Pradelle is an aristocrat who after the war defrauds French soldiers and their families by ‘managing’ the cemeteries and not respecting the dead soldiers. He finally ends up being caught and loses everything. He is a cold-blooded killer, which is evident in the first few pages of the novel. Edouard and Albert concoct a massive fraud too but Albert is successful in running away with the money. Edouard is accidentally killed by his father.  

We talked about the factual events which are related in this story such as the exhumations, harassment  of ex-soldiers and loss of identity of corpses. One of the many shocking scenes involves exhumations which happened in France after WW1. See this site for further information. Pradelle’s fraud was so disrespectful of the soldiers and so typical of his character that we were not surprised about the mess he got himself involved in.

We also talked about the main characters, Albert, Edouard and Edouard’s father who is the one character who grows through this story. Albert is the classic anti-hero and somewhat reckless after being initially timid. He is the typical bourgeoisie and good Samaritan type, and extremely loyal to his friend. Edouard  is an artist and disdains the rich and the bourgeoisie and has the original idea of the swindle carried out by them. The senior Pericourt began his life like Pradelle, in being money hungry but changes slowly through his career especially driven by the supposed loss of his son. We also explored some of the more minor characters such as Albert’s mother  (who we never meet but hear her words through Albert’s musings) and Madeleine Pericourt, Edouard’s sister.  She is a strong character who falls in love with Pradelle when she is grieving for her brother. However she realises early on that he is a fraud in many ways. She is plain but aware of her status as the daughter of very wealthy man who she alone can manage. She loves dumping Pradelle and sees him destroyed. Pauline Albert’s girlfriend is also a great character, just getting on with life and trying to get the most out of it. And she doesn’t take long to work out that life with Albert and money is her way out of domestic service.

There is a lot of sarcasm and irony and some humour in this story – for instance, in the tensions between Pradelle and his father-in-law. The same man was also Edouard’s father. M.Pericourt is told by Albert that Edouard was killed. He had not been a good father but realises this slowly through the novel and just as he is about to meet his son (unbeknowing to him) he runs over him (literally). Black comedy and farce all in one moment. Edouard’s costumes after he discovers masks brings a certain humour as does the angel outfit he wears leaving the hotel at the end of the novel.

We didn’t quite understand the ending and fully expected a different scenario. Maybe Lemaitre’s crime detective novels have taught him to leave a conclusion till the very last pages.

We really liked the characters of Albert and Edouard and sympathized with them despite their behaviour. They are very vivid descriptions and encouraged the reader to continue reading to work out the plot. Will the two swindles be successful?  We were amazed by Albert’s loyalty to Edouard despite the trials he had to suffer, especially when he had to buy drugs for Edouard and the carrying out of the swindle in the bank. Edouard was so disfigured and it is hard to imagine his face. We were all aghast at the thought of Albert putting his fist into Edouard’s missing face. There is also a lot of talk about soldiers with only one arm. Just after the war, France was a society who had forgotten to look after its living soldiers but wants to honour only the dead ones. It shows how people can so easily exploit each other given the opportunity.

It is a farce but a well meaning one and cleverly written. We thought the title was excellent for the English version as it sums up beautifully the crux of the story.