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la plus précieuse des marchandises

3 october 2021

One of the first texts I read in the French language was a schoolbook story about some character from the margins of fairy-tale, "qui coupe le bois dans le grand forêt sombre" – I don't remember anything else that happened to him, just that he made his living cutting wood in the big dark forest.

I don't think the story was "Le petit poucet," Charles Perrault's classic literary fairy tale that begins with "un bûcheron et une bûcheronne qui avaient sept enfants [et] étaient fort pauvres": a woodcutter and his wife who had seven children and were very poor. The situation in my textbook was a bit more prosaic. But evidently poor woodcutters are stock figures in French narrative. When Jean-Claude Brumberg begins "La plus précieuse des marchandises" ("The Dearest of Goods") with "une pauvre bûcheronne et un pauvre bûcheron," he qualifies the situation at one by telling the reader that this isn't going to be "Le petit poucet," a story he claims not even to like very much.

But he starts the tale that way anyway. "La plus précieuse des marchandises" is among Grumberg's few works of fiction for adults; at age 82, he has spent his career acting, writing for the stage, and publishing children's books, so the choice of the literary fairy tale is a natural one for this Holocaust story. And his ironic framing seems vital. This is not just a fairy tale about the Holocaust; it is a story about Grumberg himself, separated from his family in early childhood and never reunited with them after they were deported eastward from France to their deaths.

The pauvre bûcheronne of Grumberg's story, never given any more specific name, lives with her husband by some railroad tracks in what must (we eventually learn) be Poland. The trains on this line transport marchandises, freight or goods. She longs for the gods who run the trains to send her something, but all that ever comes off the train are balled-up written messages, and she cannot read or write any language.

Of course, the messages are being sent by deportees. And one night something much more precious than a message descends: the girl of a pair of twins, flung from the train by her desperate father. Pauvre bûcheronne raises the child as her own, necessitating guile, improvisation, and sacrifice: including that of her husband, who dies protecting the child from manhunters.

Meanwhile the father of the baby, at least, has not been killed. A physician in civilian life back in France, he survives in the camps by turning barber and shaving the heads of those about to be gassed. His existence is unbearably tragic, but somewhere inside him "une petite graine" grows, "lui ordonnant de vivre": a tiny seed, commanding him to stay alive.

I guess I should stop here lest I spoil this story, which unfolds in a mere hundred pages. It has been translated into English, by by Frank Wynne, as The Most Precious of Cargoes, available from HarperVia, and to learn the rest of the story, you might read it there. It is a moving and astringent piece; I was braced for it to descend into glurge but it stays well away from that brink. Yet it is not marked by nihilism, either. It is about lives touched and irrevocably redirected, but lives that continue, all the same.

Grumberg, Jean-Claude. La plus précieuse des marchandises. Paris: Seuil, 2019.