Philippe Claudel is probably less known as an author than as a film director, but he seems to excell at both. The 48 year old French Professor of Literature at the University of Nancy gained a few years ago some international reknown with his 2008 film “Il y a longtemps que je t'aime” starring Kristin Scott Thomas unforgettably playing a woman coming home after 15 years in jail.
It was not the first time Claudel combined both his narative skills as writer and his strong visualization talent as a cineast. Claudel has been trying his hand at film scenarios since he was a student in Nancy.
It is this narrative skill which was most impressive when I read, in a few hours only, the 184 pages of “ La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh” (2005) .
In an interview he gave, at the première of “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime”, reacting on comments on his “clean-cut” style, Claudel said that : "... My desire was that the audience forget the camera movements, forget the director, forget the team of technicians, and just see the people on the screen, and use the screen like a mirror of our existence."
This is exactly what happens with his novel “ La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh”. One is immediately absorbed by the story and forgets the words, the pages, the reading experience altogether. Only what happens is important.
We learn about Monsieur Linh, an Asian refugee, Cambodian or Vietnamese, who has been helped out of his native country to start up a new life in France. Mister Linh carries with him a newborn baby, his granddaughter Sang Diû, the daughter of his son and beautiful daughter in law who have been killed in a recent bomb attack. In fact everybody has been killed in Monsieur’s Lihn village and the old grandfather is the only survivor of a world that has now completely disappeared.
Arriving in France, a culture shock and a dreadful isolation worsen the traumatic memories Linh has already suffered.
The emotionally wounded Linh, bravely keeps going because of his granddaughter. He hopes that the new country will give her a safe and prosperous future. Although the caseworkers at the detention centre are kind, compassionate and helpful to him and his granddaughter, Linh increasingly slides into a morbid isolation. Only when he gathers the courage to leave the detention centre, ushered by the social helpers, and takes short strolls in his new city, does he get the possibility to encounter new people. Unfortunately, in the beginning in doesn’t come to more than a series of frustrating experiences and confusing interactions.
Claudel knows about isolation and the traumatic experiences it brings forth: bewilderment, commotion, and fear. He worked for 11 years as a prison tutor and saw parallalel experiences in refugees and his prisoner - students freed after being locked up for years.
In his wandering trough the neighbourhoud around the detention home, Linh gets used to rest on a bench with his granddaughter. One day someone else is sitting on the bench too. An older man, recently widowed and childless, who seems to be as lonely as Monsieur Linh. A strange friendship develops. Monsieur Bark, a Frenchman, probably an “ancien” from Indochine easily empathizes with the loneliness of Linh and starts a one-sided conversation. The two old men, both enjoying the new friendship, start to give each other presents. Linh gives Bark cigarettes and Bark gives Linh a beautiful dress for his granddaughter. Linh understandably enjoys these meetings who finally give his new country a human face.
Some weeks later, without having the possibility to warn his new friend, Linh is reallocated to a home for the elderly at the outskirts of town. Altough this move to a nicer place has been done for the good of Linh, his trauma resurges and his loneliness deepens.
Linh cannot stand the new situation and in a desperate final flight, with his granddaughter, he escapes from his home and returns to the unknown city center in search of his friend. All is not well and with a twist, Claudel in the last chapter of his book, confronts us with the even deeper trauma Linh is suffering.