Sunday, July 16, 2006

By A Slow River a novel of rare insight and beauty

“Life is strange. It doesn’t give you warnings. It jumbles everything so you can’t pick and choose, and bloody moments follow moments of grace, just like that. It can make you wonder if man isn’t like one of those pebbles that lie on the road, lying in the same place for entire days until someone kicks it and sends it sailing through the air for no reason. And what can a pebble do?”

--By A Slow River (p. 115), Philippe Claudel

66. By A Slow River, Philippe Claudel. Fiction, 7-15, p. 194

By A Slow River, by French writer Philippe Claudel, is a haunting and lyrical novel. Set in an obscure French village during World War I, it is a story of loss and regret.

The war rages nearby, at once remote and immediate. Remote because of a hill that separates the village from the front line. “But for the hill, we would have had the war right in our faces . . . By the grace of the hill we managed to dodge it . . .” The distant explosions of the battles arrive “deadened and decanted.”

The village is further insulated from the war by the town factory. “Our men kept the factory going and the factory kept them. An order was handed down from on high . . . all workers were reserved for essential civilian service. And so at least eight hundred strapping local lads would escape the raging guns . . . Eight hundred who in the eyes of some were never men at all . . . “

And so the war does make its way into the village. It arrives with a steady two-way stream of men; it is seen in the eyes of the healthy soldiers who march forlornly to the front and it is felt most keenly in the silence of the wounded as they are carted, like so much detritus, to the rear.

Along with the soldiers’ cruel judgment, death also enters the village. A lovely schoolteacher is founded hanged with no explanation for her suicide. A 10-year-old beauty is found strangled, her body discarded in a canal that winds alongside the factory.

These two deaths are enveloped in mystery. As he labors to uncover the secrets behind the mysteries, the local policeman finds himself probing the mysteries of the human heart, including his own: “Despaiux was waiting for my answer. He stood before me, his contempt growing as I sat there, looking back at him—and beyond him—into the emptiness where I alone could see Clémence. He pulled his hat down and turned his back on me without saying good-bye. He walked off. He went home to his regrets and left me to mine. No doubt he knew—as I do—that you can live in regrets as in a country.”

Few novels contain the clarity and penetrating power of By A Slow River. It is an exquisite novel of rare beauty – in its prose and in its insight.

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