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au revoir là-haut

30 january 2019

Pierre Lemaitre made his mark on French popular literature with the series of detective novels featuring the unorthodox detective Camille Verhœven. He then broke through to highbrow acclaim with Au revoir là-haut, which won him the Prix Goncourt. Though in a way typical of French popular culture, Au revoir là-haut is far more conventional and accessible than Lemaitre's Möbius-strippy, unreliably narrated mystery novels.

Au revoir là-haut, which in English translation was called The Great Swindle, reminds me of other historical sagas. I have never read Sébastien Japrisot's Long dimanche de fiançailles (1991), but I saw the 2004 film based on it, and Lemaitre's novel shares something of its atmosphere. (In turn, Au revoir là-haut became a critically-esteemed French film.) The novel also shares aspects with Ismail Kadare's General of the Dead Army, with Martin Scorsese's film Hugo (and its source, Brian Selznick's Invention of Hugo Cabret), with the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, with Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler, and with recent French historical fictions of the first world war like Jean Echenoz's 14 and Jean-Christophe Rufin's Collier rouge.

We begin in the trenches, just days before the Armistice. Historical irony demands that something tragic will occur just as the men who have survived till now can see a release from their sufferings on the horizon. In order to jump-start his postwar career, an unspeakable French officer named Pradelle sends two men out on patrol, and then shoots them from behind, triggering a last-gasp battle. In the mayhem of no-man's land, a soldier named Albert discovers Pradelle's crime and is about to avenge it. But as things fall out, Albert is buried alive by an explosion, and rescued by another soldier named Édouard, who pays terribly for his charity: Édouard's face is ripped apart.

Édouard survives, refuses all but life-saving treatment, and enters a ghostly, half-fictive postwar existence, with Albert as his constant companion. The main fiction is that Édouard has died. Because he does not want his financial-baron father and his sister Madeleine to know of his disfigurement, Édouard becomes a non-person, haunting a Paris garret, constructing weird masks for himself, attended only by a preteen girl named Louise and by the faithful but increasingly stressed-out Albert. Meanwhile the loathsome Pradelle has managed to marry Madeleine, unbeknownst to Édouard. Albert serves as Édouard's portal to reality, concealing Édouard's family from him and Édouard from his family.

The bulk of the novel concerns two great parallel frauds that intertwine and ultimately play out in tandem. Greedy for funds to restore his ancestral estates, Pradelle uses his father-in-law's connections to win contracts for the reburial of French war dead in national cemeteries. Pradelle sets about squeezing as much money as he can from the government, cramming corpses into undersized coffins and generally not being too careful about which remains end up where.

At the same time, the long-depressed Édouard springs back to life, in a manic-obsessive way. He hits on a scheme to sell memorial monuments to towns all over France. These monuments are in the kitschiest possible taste, and are redeemed only by the fact that Édouard has no intention of delivering them. Instead, he plans to collect a bunch of advance payments and then skip the country. Naturally, since Édouard has no resources and is reluctant even to leave his garret, all the legwork of this crazy conspiracy falls to the longsuffering Albert.

The two swindles work their way out over a leisurely 600 pages that seem both too long to tell the basic story and too short when you become invested in the characters and the verbal brilliance of Lemaitre's storytelling. It's a deliberately old-fashioned novel that recalls, at times, Les misérables – at one point Lemaitre's narrator even remarks that Pradelle has something of Javert about him, and he certainly does, as he continually shows up to ruin Albert's plans and eventually tracks him relentlessly across Paris as both schemes unravel.

Lemaitre, Pierre. Au revoir là-haut. 2013. Paris: Albin Michel, 2017.