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le collier rouge

6 september 2018

I can't remember where I heard about Jean-Christophe Rufin's novel Le collier rouge. I found it at the top of one of my online "Wish Lists." It's a slim book, about 150 pages in large type. For about 140 of them, it's compellingly suspenseful and, though increasingly a novel of ideas rather than a plot-driven story, it delivers strong, well-phrased ideas. In the last 10-12 pages, it jumps the shark, or whatever metaphor might be more dignified for a prestige novel by a member of the Académie française. ("Il avait sauté par-dessus le requin?") I won't tell you how it jumps, exactly, and it won't hurt you to read those last few pages. But be aware that Le collier rouge, after setting up its central tension commendably, wants nothing more than to push a button and make the whole scenario fold up and vanish.

It's 1919. A prisoner named Morlac sits in a seedy cell in rural France, the last of the cases of misconduct on the docket of a military magistrate named Lantier, who just wants to close the files and get on with his life after years of war and years of prosecuting the consequences of war. Morlac, a highly decorated combatant, is accused of doing something after the war – we aren't told what – something he might be able to live down if he would only admit to being drunk when it happened. I wasn't drunk, insists Morlac. Throw the book at me.

The misdeed has something to do with Morlac's dog, who sits outside his prison barking day and night. Lantier befriends the dog before he befriends Morlac, and the dog becomes a way of understanding both the crime and the nature of war.

Morlac says of his dog:

Il avait toutes les qualités qu'on attendait d'un soldat. … Pour lui, le monde était fait de bons et de méchants. Il y avait un mot pour dire ça: il n'avait aucune humanité. (121)

[He had all the characteristics you expect from a soldier. … For him, the world was made up of good people and bad people. There's a phrase for that: he lacked all humanity.]
The dog teaches Morlac that war is profoundly anti-humane.

We know a great deal of backstory by about halfway through Rufin's novel. It comes to seem highly artificial that we still don't know what Morlac did wrong. Teasers are one thing, but this teaser becomes, well, a shaggy-dog story. But along the way, the book makes its central point about human and canine nature dramatically, and it keeps you interested in Morlac's fate. You could do worse with a couple of reading evenings.

Rufin, Jean-Christophe. Le collier rouge. Paris: Gallimard, 2014.