La petite fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel

This month our bookclub chose a slim novella by the French author Philippe Claudel to read, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh; an interesting and somewhat ambiguous title because it can be interpreted in two different ways, already a dilemma for the translator no doubt, because petite fille is the expression used for grand-daughter, but it can also be read as petite ‘little’ and fille ‘girl’.

Something I have often wondered – why is it that there is only one word fille that means both girl and daughter, whereas there are two words for the male equivalent fils meaning son and garçon meaning boy?  The same thing happens with woman and wife, the French word is femme, whereas man is homme and husband is mari.

So did the English translation go with grand-daughter or little girl you might ask? Actually neither, the English title as shown is Monsieur Linh and His Child.  I’m not sure why they stay with Monsieur rather than Mr, I was not under the impression that he spoke in French.  It becomes clear how much of a task translating a novel must be, so many decisions to make or discard with the title alone, already certain ambiguities are lost while other insinuations are made.

Our English speaking bookclub has an international membership, so while we all read the book in French, the discussion is in English. For those of us reading French as a second language, the experience was quite different from reading a book in English.

We all went through a similar experience, starting out with a dictionary close at hand and looking words up, until we got fed up with that and decided to continue reading without stopping, some of us underlining words to come back to.

As you can see, I had my pencil ready and I also downloaded the English version to my kindle and started reading concurrent chapters, only to discover I really was just repeating myself and it wasn’t necessary to do that. But enough of the process, what a stunning novella!

Monsieur Linh has no choice but to flee his country of birth due to tragedy and destruction around him, war or some kind of tyrannical regime have made it impossible for him to stay, and so he takes a boat with his grand-daughter Sang diu, arriving as a refugee in a country across the water somewhere.

In the Shadow of the BanyanThe author does not say where he came from or where he arrives at, making this part of the reading experience, in fact we all had various impressions of where the story may have taken place, my own impression very much influenced by my recent reading of Vaddey Ratner’s novel In the Shadow of the Banyan and my own travels in that part of the world.

Monsieur Linh doesn’t leave the refugee dormitory at first, but when he does he befriends Monsieur Bark and so begins a regular coming together, a special friendship despite the incomprehension of each other’s language. In a sense we are as uninformed as Monsieur Linh, we follow him into the unknown, share his anxieties and fears for Sang diu and feel the deep and mutual appreciation of the gestures of new-found friendship.

Lorsque Monsieur Bark parle, Monsieur Linh l’écoute très  attentivement et le regarde, comme s’il comprenait tout et ne voulait rien perdre du sens des mots. Ce que sent le vieil homme, c’est que le ton de la voix de Monsieur Bark indique la tristesse, une mélancolie profonde, une sorte de blessure que la voix souligne, qu’elle accompagne au-delà des mots et du langage, quelque chose qui la traverse comme la sève traverse l’arbre sans qu’on la voie.

When  Monsieur Bark speaks, Monsieur Linh listens to him very attentively and looks at him, as if he understood everything and did not want to lose any of the meaning of the words.  What the old man senses is that the tone of Monsieur Bark’s voice denotes sadness, a deep melancholy, a sort of wound the voice accentuates, which accompanies it beyond words and language, something that infuses it just as the sap infuses a tree without one seeing it.

When I bought this book, another reader cautioned me against reading any reviews because there is a twist at the end of the book, so I did as mentioned and kept the reading experience pure. There is so much more I could share about how we invest ourselves in characters as readers, wishing things to happen and just as in life, ignoring the niggling instinct.

Irène Némirovsky’s Ida & La comédie bourgeoise

It is a beautiful story and I urge you to read it in English or in French, it is a testimony to kindness, tolerance, suffering and the small but heartfelt joys that friendship brings. Not just a wonderful story, but it has inspired me to be brave and try another short book in French. So I have my pencil ready loving that the novella form is so popular and inexpensive in France, so here is my next foray, – no rush mind you.

So do you read in a second language or like to read foreign fiction?

34 thoughts on “La petite fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel

  1. I try to make a point of having at least one French book on the go at any given point (I mean in French, rather than a translation), otherwise it’s far too easy for me to revert to English, even here in France (there are plenty of English books at the library, plus I get quite a few books to review in English). It can be quite challenging at times, where you feel that maybe you don’t like an author because you don’t understand the language very well. Had that with Veronique Olmi’s ‘Un si bel avenir’ (which I did not like very much), but had no trouble at all understanding and engaging with her language in ‘Bord de mer’.

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  2. It’s nice to read a bit of both, and I suppose it depends on the novel and if you’re reading it for the story, or for the story and language used. Some books, although great in their English translation, are even better in the original language. I certainly don’t envy the work of translators!

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    • When there is no choice but to read the translation, they seem sufficient and I certainly appreciate being able to access those stories and novels that I could not otherwise read, but I find a truly beautiful sentence seems to work best in the original language and can’t always be replicated. That said, I read Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry in translation and I find it incredibly beautiful and moving. How that is achieved is beyond me completely.

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  3. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve been out of the loop with French novels for a while, and this selection looks interesting. And I wouldn’t know how to translate “petite fille” either – not until I read the text, at the very least.

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  4. Great post, Claire. And thanks for the French reading tip! I’m always on the lookout for new books and author recommendations and I do enjoy reading in French. So now that you’re on a roll, I look forward to more of these. And yes, I love reading in different languages. I think it’s wonderful for a writer, too, to read in a second language. And yes, I am always impressed by literary translation. NOT an easy job!

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    • I do enjoy the recommendations I get from some of my students who are big into literature, although many of them are reading translated fiction themselves, so reading in French translated from Spanish, English, Japanese; last week my student was encouraging me to read a book called ‘La Mère’, which looked like a Chinese book, but Pearl Buck I said, that was originally written in English wasn’t it? I’d have to read that in English!

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  5. I don’t read in another language, though I would love to. I understood some of the French quotation you posted, but not nearly enough. I do like foreign fiction however, and read a lot of European works. Without translations reading would be so limited and less vibrant.

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    • I so agree, I am very much drawn towards translations and fiction or non-fiction that crosses cultures and provides us with another experience, another perspective and set of values. I wish there was more available in English, as a percentage of the fiction published it is a hopelessly small percentage compared to what French and German publishers offer, they seem to be so much more familiar with foreign fiction because it so much more widely available.

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  6. I used to read novels in French a lot the first 10 years. Now I read newspapers in French most of the the time. I seem to enjoy reading novels in my maternal language English more. We did read a novel in French in my English speaking book club. It was called Lignes de faille by Nancy Huston or Fault Lines in English. It was a peculiar book and actually the first book I’d read by her. She had originally written it in French so I was glad to have read it French. I don’t really enjoy reading translations concerning French. and English. You should check out Suite Française by Nemirovsky. A really interesting read about WWII in France.

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    • Suite Française was the first Nemirovsky I read and loved it, have enjoyed a few others since then, so was happy to find this slim volume.
      I understand the desire to read in the langue maternelle and it is the one thing I am loathe to sacrifice, reading in French feels like it steals time from reading in English – but at the same time, there is a wonderful benefit to reading in French, slim volumes like this I think I can cope with🙂

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      • Totally agree. For me there is something that is cut off for me when I read in French. This is why I prefer to read things like magazines and newspapers. My favorite is Courrier International. That is my regular French read every week. I kill two birds with one stone. Not only do I read in French but I keep abreast of the international news and insight from other countries.

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  7. It’s a lovely little book, isn’t it? I’m so glad you enjoyed it. The first Claudel I read was Les Ames Grises and it was also really powerful, then I read M. Linh and finally read Brodeck about a year ago. Brodeck is perhaps the “heaviest” of the three, but it’s an exceptional book.

    I haven’t read the Nemirovsky you’ve got there – but I’m so interested to read more of her work. I read “Le Bal” which was very short, and… sad but funny too. She was obviously an incredible writer and so sad her life was cut so short.

    p.s. was it worth being suprised by the ending of M. Linh?

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    • Yes and I am really glad you told me not to read the reviews, this point was discussed by our group and I do believe it was a different reading experience for coming to it without any prior knowledge (or sneaking a peek at the end). It would also make it an interesting re-read.

      Yes, I was surprised to find another Némirovsky I hadn’t heard of, there are stories contained within this slim , I’m looking forward to reading her shorter fiction.

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  8. Please excuse the non sequitur intrusion. Do you know how I might find what has happened to CWC6161, The Kindly Hermudgeon? She has not blogged since the middle of June, and I fear the worst. Please reply on my blog.

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  9. What a fantastic process you went through with this book. It really is different to read in the language something was written. I’ve done this a couple of times with short Italian books. It’s worth seeing the original cadence.
    The book itself does sound interesting. I will have to put it on my TBR list. Thanks for the post.

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  10. Pingback: Top Reads 2012 | Word by Word

  11. My only encounter with Philippe Claudel is his directorial debut Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long is the English title) starring Kristin Scott Thomas in a captivating role. After watching that film I told myself I must find Claudel’s books to read. But being in Canada, it’s not easy. I’ll keep on checking. Thanks to your post, this sounds like a good read. Have you seen Claudel’s film? If not, you should try to find it. It’s one of the most moving films I’ve ever watched. If you’re interested, I just like to share with you my thoughts on it here.

    As for reading in another language, I can read Chinese. Yes, I was born in the then British Colony of Hong Kong (before repatriation to China in 1997). Even though it’s been decades now since I came to Canada as a young teenager, I can still remember the Chinese language. But I seldom read Chinese books though. This is just personal… I find I can enjoy literature more in the English language.

    Thanks for visiting Ripple Effects and sharing your thoughts on my posts. I’ve much appreciated your comments.

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    • I haven’t seen the film, but I remember now hearing it is a must see, thank you for the reminder, I will look for it in our library. I have also been told that Brodeck’s Report is very good, well it won the International Prize for Fiction in 2010, so that makes it something of an accomplishment for sure.

      I read Monsieur Linh in French but also downloaded a kindle copy to read in English, sometimes it’s easier to find the kindle version than the real thing when it comes to translations.

      How wonderful to have access to the Chinese language, that sounds like having a secret language, something unexpected and a link to an exciting and adventurous past. Your mentioning Hong Kong reminds me that I really want to read Martin Booth’s memoir, published posthumously Gweilo: Memoirs of a Hong Kong Childhood (in the US it was given the title Golden Boy), I love his writing and there is a whole aspect to his life that I know nothing about, but have a sense that it will be very interesting. His book The Industry of Souls, is one of favourites.

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  12. I am french. I heard of it but actually never read it. Maybe a future christmas present from my family! Regarding the vocabulary, it works both ways. How many times I think “why do they just use this word in english when in France we say that”…haha. I think it is great that you read it in french first of all because I would be the first one to tell you that french is not an easy language and then because often some things get lost in translation.

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    • I think that’s why I prefer the short reads in French, I want to read Ru by Kim Thuy in French also because as the author says herself, there is a musicality to the language and that kind of poetic language doesn’t always come across well in translation.

      Monsieur Linh is a delightful read, just don’t read too many reviews about it, as there is a twist!

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  13. Pingback: Brodeck’s Report | Word by Word

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  15. Thanks so much for sharing this post with me! It really does sound like a lovely book – I’ll definitely look for it and other books by Claudel. Did you ever go back and read it in English?

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    • Yes, I did eventually read the English version as well, but I think also because I had the physical book in French and it really is a little book, not very long so even less intimidating than it might have been and the kindle version in English, I was more keen to sit with the physical book.

      Another one that I’ve recently read in translation but that I’m tempted to read in French (only 96 pages) is Bonjour Tristesse, if you haven’t read it, add that to your reading list, it’s a fabulous read, although I believe sections of the original were excluded from the English translation, making it all the more interesting to translate the original French I would think – although that may introduce you to some rather racy vocabulary!

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