Frenchman Philippe Claudel’s sheaf-of-a-book is a melancholy exercise in time-lapse photography. It tells of an elderly Vietnamese villager who has escaped his war-torn country in the wake of the murder of his son and his wife. A refugee in France, all he has left, or so it seems, is the couple’s infant daughter, whom he holds dear and close as a memory of what was and what may be.
Despite Mr. Linh’s age, infirmity, and displacement, the little girl is his undying inspiration. By chance, he meets a kindred soul, Mr. Bark, who has lost his wife to cancer. Though they lack a common language, Linh and Bark become friends, their bond giving the story its moral outline.
Claudel writes in the poignantly sad tradition of Grimm, La Fontaine, and Hans Christian Andersen, producing a kind of “Little Match Girl”-like fairy tale suited to modern terms but as easily situated in 1700 as 2000. His aim is to create a sentimental landscape in which trauma and compassion coexist to inspire and delude. This he does simply and with uncommon beauty.
Don’t be deceived by the modesty of the narrative. Claudel is among the few living writers capable of giving fables a loudly transcendent voice. Grief’s intonations, and Claudel’s, are at one.