Philippe Claudel – La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh

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. 

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21 Comments on “Philippe Claudel – La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh”

  1. litlove says:

    I can just imagine how delightful this must be. French novels do the understated thing so wonderfully. I can see I will have to get hold of it!

  2. Juliette says:

    Thank you for another enticing review of Claudel’s work. Litlove – I understand so clearly what you are saying, the understatement of which you speak – I find it almost spiritual.
    I have searched LT and I think I am correct in thinking there is no translation into English. I am tempted to read it but am immersed in War and peace at present…..

  3. verbivore says:

    Litlove – I was wondering if you’d already read it! I think you would really enjoy it and its such a quick read, and so thoroughly satisfying. Claudel is rapidly becoming one of my favorite contemporary French writers.

    Juliette – I had a look on Amazon as well and was surprised that this one hasn’t yet been translated. Perhaps it is in the works? Two other Claudel’s have already which was why I thought this one might be as well. I think you would love this one!

  4. Ann Darnton says:

    My reading group has just read some Colette and I have been looking for another French writer to move on to. This sounds as if it would be ideal.

  5. verbivore says:

    Ann – I’d love to know what you think of it. The Claudel is just lovely and, I think, an easy read in many ways. There is a lot going on but Claudel pulls everything off so effortlessly.

  6. Claire Joliet says:

    Hello everyone,

    I am a French student in translation and I am writing a report about this wonderful novel (which I am very glad you liked!). The aim of the report is to convince a British or American pushisher that the book is worth translating into English. I gathered from your comments that you would be interested in reading La petite Fille de Monsieur Linh in English. Would you say it is likely to interest an English speaking audience?

    Thank you very much for your help!

  7. verbivore says:

    Claire – How exciting for you. I am a translator so I wish you lots of luck on your project. I would certainly agree that this book is worth translating. Two of Claudel’s have already been, so the market is already there. Whether it would interest an English-speaking market is a tough question…yes and no, I suppose. Claudel writes so lyrically, but at the same time his stories tend to keep you reading to find out what will happen.

  8. Claire Joliet says:

    Thank you very much for your kind answer Verbivore. I was thinking also, for La petite fille de monsieur Linh, its sort of universal character makes it relevant in alsmot any culture. I mean, there is no precise mention of the countries…Mr Linh could as well have arrived in Britain. Anyway, thanks again for your help!

  9. verbivore says:

    Claire – a very good point, the universality of the refugee experience along with the widower experience. It would also be interesting to think of some British or American writers who use a similar style to Claudel…

  10. Sandrine says:

    I am looking for this book in English as I have just finished it in French but want to recommend it to my freinds (I live in Ireland). So sad, it is not translated yet…
    We all went looking for a copy in English and only found deception…
    It is an amazing book… So much unsaid but still so complete.

  11. verbivore says:

    Sandrine – Hello and thank you for leaving a comment. I agree its really too bad that this particular Claudel hasn’t yet been translated. There have been translations of at least one of his that I know of, so maybe this one is in the works. And I couldn’t agree more, its a wonderful wonderful little book. He’s become one of my favorite French authors.

  12. Kelly L says:

    I absolutely loved this novel, and teared up almost page by page, it is so touching. I also was surprised that there is no English translation as I think it could be a great success. It reminds me of Mitch Albom’s “Five People You Meet in Heaven”. And it’s true the odor-less country could just as well have been Britain as America, I think that Mr. Bark is such a curious name.

  13. verbivore says:

    Kelly – Glad you also enjoyed the novel. Claudel has rapidly become one of my favorite French novelists. I suspect someone will translate it soon – these things take so long!

  14. [...] Even after becoming a singer, she still kept connections with her publisher. While everything entertainment basically stopped during the earthquake, she translated La Petit Fille de Monsieur Linh. For an English summary of the book, go here . [...]

  15. Erika says:

    WARNING – THIS COMMENT CONTAINS A SPOILER:
    I finished reading this touching story in French a short while ago. In my class there was a consensus
    that the “little doll” is in fact a doll. If you reread the story with this in mind, it makes it even more touching and explains the physical impossibility of the way the child is treated ie., after he is medicated the child is left laying by M. Linh’s side. There are many more examples, but I’ll leave it to you to find all the clues.

  16. kelvin pham says:

    hey guys . if you know the exact spelling of “tao-lai” which means Bonjour. please help me out i couldnt fugure out.
    also, for the song that he sings to the baby
    does anyone know the original lyrics?

  17. Kathy says:

    WARNING: CONTAINS A SPOILER

    Iagree with Erika that the grandchild is a doll. Mr. Linh can not accept the death of his son, daughter in law and their baby, so he picks up the doll and transposes it as his “grandchild.” I am a grandmother and I was troubled with the treatment of the baby in the first few pages. I awoke in the middle of the night with a start and thought, of course it’s a doll. There are many hints throughout the book. If one rereads passages which explain the baby, you can figure it out. She never cries, opens and closes the eyes like a baby doll, always has a smile or pleasant look on her face, th rice he feeds her dribbles out thed side of her mouth. The people around him laugh and titter at the crazy old man. Mr. Bark is very respectful of the doll as he understands somehow his loss. It is very evident when the children in the refugee center take it when he is asleep and toss it around to each other. Never does this “baby” cry. If you have ever had a new baby around, you know this isn’t possible. Even a young baby born deaf cries. Read the wonderful autobiography by Emmanuelle Laborit, Le cri de la Mouette, to verify this. I asked my instructor at French class if this was a doll and she hushed me so as not to give it away before the end of the book. Sorry.

  18. Dana says:

    I am reading this book for my grade eleven French class and the fact that Sang diu is a doll came to me in the form of an epiphany somewhere around page 115. It began when M. Linh was forced to move into a new house that was clearly for either old people or those considered clinically insane. They would never let him have a baby and care for it himself in either of those homes.
    I believe the deaths of his only family deeply hurt Mr. Linh and to shield himself from emotional pain, his brain created a false memory and a sort of hallucination in the form of a baby. His granddaughter. Sang diu.
    The poor old man. This story was thoroughly depressing.

  19. Philip Shea says:

    It has been a long time since a book has moved me so deeply. It is a beautiful story of love: the love of M Linh for his country and his family, the love that develops between the two old men. The ending is not sad; M Linh finds his friend and dies a very happy man. He has triumphed after suffering a dreadful tragedy.
    The French is simple;the book is short; read it.

  20. Jean Gilchrist says:

    Retired to France and reading this wonderful novel as part of learning the language, I was moved to tears. Even with a less than perfect grasp of the language, the emotion in this beautifully constructed tale came through very clearly. I agree with the suggestion of the ‘universal character’. I believe it to be a moral tale for the modern world. Yes, of course sad, but so full of love, hope, endeavour and – yes – even in the closing pages – joy. I cannot agree with a previous submission that this was a depressing read. I would recommend this to anyone – even those like myself whose French is barely acceptable. Merci, Merci.

    • verbivore says:

      I am so glad you enjoyed the book. I also didn’t find it a depressing read at all. It is more about human connection and people finding a way out of their trauma, in whatever way they can. Have you tried any of his other work? Les Ames Grises is also beautifully-written and although perhaps a little more difficult that Monsieur Linh (for a French learner) is still accessible.


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