Elegantly accomplished love stories are hard to pull off. Despite intentions, it is far too easy for a book to start wading around in kitschy melodrama, eccentric shenanigans or heavy morality. But then comes along the book that gets it right, the book that draws the reader so slyly, so lovingly, into its unique perspective, its bustling little world, its delicate emotion.
Philippe Claudel’s short novel La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh is a unique and polished love story. The story of true love rising up between two old men who in their loneliness find companionship in the most unlikely of places – a park bench in a noisy French city. Monsieur Linh is a Vietnamese refugee, washed ashore with a wave of other destitute boat people like himself. He is unbelievably sad for the village and homeland he’s left behind, for the son and daughter-in-law who were killed. His only reason to live is the infant granddaughter he has carried with him across the ocean, in the hopes of giving her a new home.
Monsieur Bark is a widower who spends his days on a bench in the park where his wife worked all her life as a carousel operator. Until the day Monsieur Linh sits down with his granddaughter in his arms and the two men begin a conversation. This is no ordinary conversation because neither man can understand the other – Monsieur Linh doesn’t understand a word of French and Monsieur Bark doesn’t even know what country Monsieur Linh comes from. But a kind of communion forms between them, fashioned out of their mutual loneliness and exclusion. They begin to meet every day. Monsieur Linh brings cigarettes for his new friend. Monsieur Bark gifts a lovely dress for the “little doll” that accompanies the old men on their slow walks around the city.
Claudel keeps things simple in this novel, deceptively simple. Beneath this beautiful love story are the disturbing ripples of deep trauma. Both men struggle with the demons of their past, the weight of their sorrow and their reaction to the confusing new worlds of widowhood and refugee status. But their friendship, the true love of their improbable alliance, creates a path away from that trauma toward a hopeful future. Or, at the very least, a future made less lonely by the presence of a genuine friend.
ADDITIONAL COMMENT: La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh has a surprise ending, which I believe is important for people who have never read the book to discover on their own as they read. Claudel is playing with the significance of trauma here, and his trick is a marvelous illustration of how serious trauma can affect the human psyche. In my review, I hinted at this discovery and would like to ask anyone leaving a comment here to remain as discreet as possible or include a spoiler alert. Thank you.