Books The Great SwindlePierre Lemaitre has won a substantial following both in his native France and abroad for writing crime fiction.  His Commandant Camille Verhoeven trilogy is a police procedural set in Paris, each one having claimed top mystery novel prizes.  His latest novel, The Great Swindle in Frank Wynne’s translation [Au revoir lá-haut in the original] has won, not only for crime or mystery but France’s most prestigious literary prize,  the 2013 Prix Goncourt, awarded in the past to such luminaries as Marcel Proust, Andre Malraux, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Instead of crime hardened criminals and elusive characters committing mayhem to be solved, he lets “The Great War” do the mayhem, and from that two great swindles grow that provide the crimes and plot of the book.

The Great Swindle begins during one of the last battles of WW I.  News of a possible armistice is already in the air but Lt. Henri D’Aulnay-Pradelle is desperate for a last chance at glory.  He sends a “young guy and an old guy” out on a scouting mission towards the German lines, shoots them in the back and screams that the Germans — who also know an armistice is coming — have cruelly and uselessly shot them, goading his own men into a revenge attack. Running towards the German lines, Albert Maillard realizes how the two men were shot, and by whom.  Realizing that Maillard knows, Pradelle pushes him into a muddy shell crater, intending to grenade him. An enormous German shell buries Maillard alive before the grenade is thrown and Pradelle leaves him to die. Another soldier, Edouard Péricourt, himself shot in the leg, sees a bayonet sticking out of the newly filled shell hole and with great effort digs its owner, Maillard, out, only to be gruesomely wounded in the process. The lower half of his face is blown away.  The rescue and the wound bind the two together in sickness and in swindle.

After the war, Pradelle realizes that a fortune is ready to be made by providing coffins and re-burial services for all the bodies of French soldiers left in the fields where they had died.  Families and a grateful nation want them home. The fortune to be made will be greater if not too much is spent on the wood, or labor, or, in fact, in ascertaining the identity of those being dug up.  How would the mother praying above know whether the body below is a Frenchman or a German, much less her own son?

Books The Great Swindle Masks

Because of his destroyed lower face Edouard decides not to return to his wealthy banking family, and society, and convinces Maillard to write them a letter testifying to his death.   Under a new identity, hiding away in a cheap rooming house, he comes up with a scheme to make them both rich. He is an excellent draughtsman and will put together a fine catalog of memorials, headstones and monuments which grieving families can purchase to honor their sons and fathers.  One half the cost is to be collected in advance, with a date beyond which no more can be accepted. On that day, they will split the money and run.

As it turns out, Pradelle marries Madeline Péricourt, Edouard’s sister.  When his reburial scheme is uncovered by a marvelously uncorruptable inspector, Joseph Merlin, he turns to his powerful father-in-law to cover his back.  It does not turn out well.

Lemaitre has done what few writers have tried to do: write a satisfying crime novel, the characters of which are shaped by a recent war.  Another war/crime novel I know of, Ben Elton’s 2012 The First Casualty, takes place at the front itself, and integrates the tension of a whodunit with the common tropes of most war novels — the stupidity of orders,  courage and cowardice,  and always, the carnage.  Lemaitre takes a slightly different tack.  An inspector uncovering a crime is central to the novel but it is not a police procedural or detective story. We know what is happening as it goes along, though we are left to speculate on the final outcomes, not revealed until the end.

There are certainly passages at the front, and about the men’s expectations, sufferings and realizations.

“In the beginning, this romantic vision of warfare was one he shared with many of his comrades. He would imagine serried ranks of soldiers in their striking blue-and-red uniforms marching toward the terrified enemy. Their fixed bayonets would sparkle in the sunshine as the plumes of smoke from a few carefully aimed shells confirmed the enemy had been routed. In his heart, Albert had signed up for a war from the pages of Stendhal only to be confronted by a banal, barbaric slaughter that claimed a thousand lives a day for fifty months.”

Much of it, however, takes place in the war’s aftermath, where impoverished, ill-attended veterans roam the streets and business-as-usual, with new opportunities, gains strength and energy.  Selling poorly made boots and bad meat was profitable during the war; selling coffins, perhaps holding the buyer’s slain kin,  and memorials never meant to be made was opportunity discovered in the years after.  In this post-war terrain Lemaitre joins Nobel Prize winner, Svetlana Alexievich, who understands in several of her journalistic-novels, Zinky Boys and  War’s Unwomanly Face, that war does not stop when an armistice is signed. It goes on for years.

The swindle of such reburials actually occurred in France following WW I, as it did, with less grandiosity, in Russia 60 years later during the Russo-Afghan war: “Zinky boys” are those who came home in zinc coffins, sealed, with no possibility of familial identification.  The monument scam was invented, with perfect plausibility.

It would be hard to imagine enjoying, exactly, either of the two swindles, the victims of which are the grieving families of the dead.  Not much funny about that. Our sympathy, however, does go out to Edouard and it grows, as he learns to live with his disfigured face, helped by the friendship of a young girl who helps him cover the appalling wound with fanciful hand-made masks.  Though his targeting of the bereaved may be off, his scheme to “make them pay” for his derailed life has a kind of understandable justice to it.  Albert, uncomfortable with the plan but needy himself, makes use of his accounting skills to raise seed capital from gullible bankers.  His happiness in the closing pages makes us happy, ill-gotten gains or not.  Pradelle, the lucky one, who comes out of the war unwounded, and marries the banker’s daughter, is far less likable, from the beginning. We enjoy seeing him desperately play his cards of bluster, intimidation and connections in a losing game as the implacable, despised inspector Merlin closes in.  Oh, there is a delicious turn in the end!

The authorial voice retains a light touch of irony despite the sad circumstances.

“He gave these rumors [the end of the war] no more credit than he had the propaganda at the beginning of the war that claimed that the bullets of the Boches were so soft they burst against French uniforms like overripe pears, leaving soldiers roaring with laughter. In four years, Albert had seen his fair share of guys who died laughing from a German bullet.”

Occasional asides make us one of the knowing observers:

“In his defense, he had good reason to be worried. He was defrauding the bank in order to finance a subscription scam; in other words, he was stealing money in order to steal more money— it was enough to confuse any novice swindler.”

The success of such a novel, it seems to me, should be judged not simply by whether the author spins a good tale which, in this case Lemaitre does: the plot is interesting, strange but plausible events take place, the characters are real and we acquire feelings about them, though from an observer’s distance.  Success has to do with whether the author has aimed at something other than a good story, and has achieved his purpose.

The epigraph Lemaitre chooses, from which the French title, Au revoir lá-haut, comes is this:

Let us make a date
to meet in heaven
where I hope God will reunite us.
Good-bye till there,
my darling wife …

Last words written by Jean Blanchard, December   4, 1914

Jean Blanchard was one of 6 men shot to death by a French firing-squad for ‘cowardice’ under fire. They were referred to later as The Martyrs of Vingré,(in Fr).  Six years after their deaths their convictions were overturned and veterans rights restored to their survivors. Memorials to the event and the men have been erected in several of their villages,  one as recently as 2014.

While the English title, The Great Swindle, point to the plot, the French, “See You Up There,” coming from a man unjustly executed, is a reflection on the war and what happens when we enter one. In directing our attention there, Lemaitre succeeds.  Through the lens of a good story, we read of men, and societies as a whole, victimized, as the families of the executed were, by a kind of double jeopardy: their sons were dead, and they were held in contempt for raising a coward.

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Frank Wynn is a very accomplished translator.  He is the main translator of Michel Houellebecq, the current enfant terrible of French letters, and he won the prestigious Scott Moncreiff prize in 2008 for two novels by Frédéric Beigbeder.  The translation he presents of The Great Swindle, despite the choice of title — likely the publisher’s, not his– leaves little to be desired and a good deal to praise.

Not having read any of the original, I found the English throughout to be readable and persuasive.  We aren’t brought to a full stop by unlikely words or phrases in the mouths of Frenchmen of 1918, though I am curious about the use of “Indian file” for a single-file line of men.  He’s not the only translator to use it and I always wonder if it is literally ‘Indian file’ in French, having come over during the French-Indian wars, or a contemporary borrowing for say, ‘single file’ in French. [Asking around at a recent conference of translators I discovered that, however familiar Indian file was to me from my youth, quite a few English speakers had never heard it used, making me more curious about the translation.]

My eyes did rise when I read that French villagers were “chewing the fat,” which seems too uniquely, American English, though dated about the right time. I wasn’t sure that a soldier would “ponder” an idea,  or a man with a sandwich board would “traipse.”  When Joseph Merlin is introduced as a “representative of the ministry” it took a few pages to realize he wasn’t a religious figure but one from the bureaucracy.

On the other hand, passages of well imaged and well translated prose let us see lives, under duress,

“A dozen yards above his head, where the sky should be, he watches as, in slow motion, the dark earth furls into a great wave whose shifting, sinuous crest is surging toward him, about to break and engulf him completely. A light, almost indolent rain of pebbles, clods, and assorted rubble heralds its arrival.”

after the shooting was over,

Like those men who had spent four years crouched under a hail of bullets and would, literally, never stand tall again but would go through life with their shoulders bowed by an invisible weight, Albert was convinced that one thing at least he would never recover: serenity.

As the swindle picks up steam,

A hundred thousand francs. Ten years’ salary. The proposition had an immediate effect, Merlin seemed twenty years younger. He did not hesitate, in a flash he ripped the envelopes from Pradelle’s hands. He hunched over, snuffling loudly, he looked like he was sobbing as he bent down and began stuffing the envelopes into his briefcase as though there was a hole in the bottom he was trying to plug.

Very good stuff, indeed. Fit for readers of crime stories, of France at the beginning the Roaring 20s’ and for anyone trying to understand humans and their wars.

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For an interview in February, 2014, with Lemaitre, see Crime Fiction Lover, here.

His own site, with some interviews, is here. 

Another short review is here.

 

 

 

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