Traumatized by memories of his war-ravaged country, and with his son and daughter-in-law dead, Monsieur Linh travels to a foreign land to bring the child in his arms to safety. The other refugees in the detention centre are unsure how to help the old man; his caseworkers are compassionate, but overworked. Monsieur Linh struggles beneath the weight of his sorrow, and becomes increasingly bewildered and isolated in this strange, fast-moving town. And then he encounters Monsieur Bark. Neither speaks the other's language, but Monsieur Bark is sympathetic to the foreigner's need to care for the child. Recently widowed and equally alone, he is eager to talk, and Monsieur Linh knows how to listen. The two men share their solitude, and find friendship in an unlikely dialogue between two very different cultures.
"An old man is standing on the after-deck of a ship. In his arms he clasps a flimsy suitcase and a newborn baby, even lighter than the suitcase. The old man's name is Monseiur Linh. He is the only person who knows this is his name because all those who once knew it are dead." (p.1)
So begins Monsieur Linh and His Child: bitter and sweet and wistful - the very notes on which the curtain closes, come the occasion - it is a Kafka-esque elegy of friendship which handily sustains the sense of uncomplicated beauty evidenced above over its abbreviated course. A 2005 novella, lately translated from the French by Euan Cameron, from Philippe Claudel, author of Brodeck's Report and erstwhile director of the sublime foreign-language film I've Loved You So Long, at 100 small-format pages of oversized font, Monseiur Linh and His Child is in stature hardly more than a short story, but it has all the emotional impact of a gut-punch to the soul.
There is an old man, and a fat man. A doddering refugee from a war-torn state whose only reason for living is the infant girl he clutches tight against his chest, rescued miraculously from the battlefield on which her entire family lay dead, and a cheery chain-smoker with a penchant for hot toddies who hasn't connected with anyone since his wife passed away. One day, they sit on the same bench. So begins a friendship that will come to mean much to Monsieur Linh and his bench-fellow, Bark.
"He recalls the touch of the old man's hand when he placed it on his shoulder. He then remembers that he is alone in the world, with his little girl. Alone together. That his country is far away. That his country is no longer there, so to speak. That it is nothing but fragments of memories and dreams that survive on in his weary old man's head." (p.42)
Both men have been certain of their identities, in their lives, only to have tragedy steal everything away. Bark and Linh have lost their selves, in a sense, and though they share neither a language common between them nor even their names - a miscommunication leaves each calling the other "good day" - what each of the men have lost, the simple truth and goodness of sharing a moment with another living soul helps them begin to come to terms with.
But as Monsieur Linh reflects, staring out at the "thousands of lights in the city that sparkle and seem to move about [...] as if they were stars that had fallen to earth and were trying to fly back into the sky once more," "you can never fly back to what you have lost." (p.87) There is thus an ineffable impression of sadness about Monsieur Linh and His Child, building and swelling like a lump in the throat even as the old man and the fat man find some measure of solace in unexpected company.
Canny readers will likely see a rug-from-under twist I hardly dare discuss coming, and while such premonition perhaps robs Monsieur Linh and His Child of some of the sense of revelation Claudel seems to be shooting for in the final scene, this isn't The Sixth Sense; there's more, much more, to Monsieur Linh and His Child than a tidy trick. It is a timeless testament to the enduring beauty of friendship, and in its powerful last moments, an ode to - of all things - better tomorrows for us all. For "miracles can sometimes happen, and there can be riches, and laughter, and hope once more just when you think that everything around you is nothing but destruction and silence." (p.119)