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Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir là-haut (The Great Swindle)
This book won the 2013 Goncourt Prize, after getting a lot of excellent reviews in France. Lemaitre had been known primarily as a thriller writer, particularly for his Camille Verhoeven series, so this was a change of pace. It starts in the last week of World War I and tells the traditional story of the little man against the more powerful. Our little man hero is Albert Maillard, an ordinary soldier in the French army who has managed to survive all four years. He was formerly a bank clerk. Like his fellow soldiers, he is very much aware of the rumours of an armistice and hopes to sit out the rest of the war, as do, he believes, the Germans just a short distance across no-man’s land. Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle has other ideas. He hopes to be promoted to captain before the end of the war. He comes from a family that has fallen on hard times and no longer has the power and wealth it used to have. The family mansion is crumbling. He sends two soldiers out on patrol, to see what the Germans are up to. The two soldiers are quite confident that the Germans will not react. But suddenly there are two shots and the French soldiers have disappeared. There is outrage among the French troops and when Lieutenant Pradelle calls for an attack, they are all eager to go. Albert gets separated from his comrades and falls in a crater where he finds his two fallen comrades – shot in the back. Looking up, he sees Pradelle and realises what has happened. He tries to escape Pradelle but an explosion releases a mound of earth and he is buried. As Lemaitre puts it, Albert Maillard, soldier, has just died. Just nearby Édouard Péricourt has been shot in the leg and is in considerable pain. (We later learn that he has also been shot in the jaw.) However, when he sees a bayonet sticking up from the dirt, he struggles over and digs out the body of Albert. Of course, Albert is not dead but gradually recovers.
Édouard, however, is in bad shape and Albert sticks with him, looking after him, and even stealing hospital morphine for him. Demobilisation takes a long time and all the while Albert is helping Édouard and avoiding Pradelle. When Édouard indicates that he wants to change identity to avoid going home, Albert manages to switch his service book and mark Édouard Péricourt down as dead. When Madeleine, Édouard’s sister, comes looking for the body of her brother, Albert fakes a grave for her to find. Finally, demobilisation takes place and Albert takes Édouard with him. Édouard is still in bad shape and Albert looks after him, even stealing to get him the morphine he needs. Albert did not get his old job back so has to take any job he can. Meanwhile, Pradelle accompanied Madeleine and Albert to the (alleged) grave of her brother and he subsequently marries her. Her father is rich and influential and Pradelle uses the connections of his father-in-law and also his connections with his general, who was very pleased with the final assault. He becomes rich. He first makes money by buying up military equipment very cheaply, thanks to the general, and then selling it at a large profit. He then gets a contract to bury all the remains of French soldiers found on battlefields in a few large cemeteries. We follow him as he cuts corners, cheats and lies to make a large profit. He is also regularly unfaithful to Madeleine. Albert and Édouard are not doing so well but they decide that they want money and hatch a plan to get it.
Lemaitre tells his story very well, keeping the tension and pace going and, while much of it is fairly predictable, there are, inevitably, a few twists in the tale. The characters he portrays are excellent – from the supercilious, greedy and ruthless Pradelle to the generally meek Albert, from Marcel Péricort, father of Madeleine and Édouard, who is initially hard and ruthless but who really starts to miss his son after his death, to Joseph Merlin, the embittered, disliked but devoted civil servant, who is sent on a fact-finding mission about the cemeteries where Pradelle is burying the French war dead. However, while this story is certainly a good read, and good versus evil is always a story to tell, it is not great literature. It is generally predictable and is almost entirely plot-driven. But if you like a good story, you will certainly enjoy this novel.
First published in 2013 by Albin Michel
First English translation in 2015 by Maclehose Press
Translated by Frank Wynne