Philippe Claudel – Les Ames Grises
The notion of revelation as catharsis works quietly behind the scenes in this slim novel. Our narrator needs to tell us something…il faut tout de même que j’essaie de dire. De dire ce qui depuis vingt ans me travaille le cœur. Il faut que j’ouvre au couteau le mystère comme un ventre, et que j’y plonge à pleines mains, même si rien ne changera rien à rien. This is a powerful image, of the story being slit open with a knife followed by a gory re-examination of the facts. But his avowal of the futility of his necessary retelling is what first alerts the reader to this narrator’s significance. Why he is the only person able to really tell us what happened. Because he isn’t just recounting a series of events that transpired in his village at the start of WWI, he is describing his own personal tragedy.The story unfolds in a small village against the fitting backdrop of early WWI and concerns, on the surface, the mysterious murder of a young girl nicknamed Belle du jour. But as the narrator plunges his knife more deeply into the heart of the story, in particular the life of the local chief prosecutor and a charming schoolmistress with whom the town falls in love, the reader quickly learns that nothing about this murder and this story is black and white. This is, in essence, the narrator’s point. Nothing is clear cut. Everything is gray. Even our souls.
Despite the absorbing intrigue surrounding the murder of Belle du jour, this novel poses a deeply troubling but profound question about loss and grief. The narrator remembers visiting the young girl’s father, a restaurant owner, a few weeks after the murder. Jamais auparavant je n’avais vu la grande salle vide. Aucun bruit….Et Bourrache devant le feu, assis sur un tabouret de lutin, les pieds tendus vers les quelques braises, la tête penchée, penchée sur le vide. Un géant mort. The narrator, who is unaware of the fact that at that same moment his pregnant wife is beginning to go into the labor that will ultimately kill her, sits beside Belle du Jour’s father to keep him company. And then suddenly, the father turns to the narrator and begins to strangle him. Just like that. Just puts his two hands around the narrator’s neck and keeps tightening. …et moi, bizarrement, je n’ai pas eu peur, je l’ai laissé faire, je savais que je n’avais pas affaire a un assassin, ni même a un fou, mais tout bonnement a un père qui venait de perdre son enfant, et pour qui le monde désormais était comme un grand soleil taché de noir. This first scene hints at the destructive powers of grief, powers that the narrator will revisit when he finally becomes able to tell us the story he’s been wanting to recount from the beginning.