Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindle (Review)

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindleAs I was reading Pierre Lemaitre’s literary page-turner, The great swindle, I started to wonder about the endings of books, what I look for, what I most appreciate. What I don’t look for is neat, happy conclusions. There are exceptions to this of course. Jane Austen, for example, but she was writing at a different time when the novel was in an earlier stage of development. In contemporary novels, I look for something a little challenging, something that suggests that life isn’t neatly wrapped up. Fiction isn’t life, I know, but its role, for me anyhow, is to reflect on, and thus make me think about, life. So, Lemaitre’s The great swindle? How does it end? I’m not going to tell you – it’s not the done thing in reviews – but I will say that it’s satisfying, even though it does have one of those many-years-later wrap-ups that I’m not convinced is needed.

There, that’s an unusual opening for me, isn’t it, to start with the end? Where do I go now? Back to the beginning I think. The novel is divided into sections: 1918, November 1919, March 1920, and Epilogue. It starts in the trenches on 2 November 1918, just days before the First World War ends. One of our two main characters Albert Maillard is there, wanting a quiet, safe time until the war ends, but his commanding officer, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, has other ideas, setting off a series of events that reverberates through all their years.

This is, in fact, quite a plot-driven novel, despite having many strings to its bow. And you all probably know how much I hate describing plots, so I’m going to keep it simple. After a devastating opening which leaves soldier Édouard Péricourt with a severely damaged face and Albert, for good reasons, taking responsibility for his care, the novel focuses on life in Paris in the immediate aftermath of war. While our two soldiers struggle to survive, Pradelle has been demobbed a Captain, as he’d orchestrated, married a wealthy young woman, Madeleine, who happens to be Édouard’s sister, and is engaged in the business of providing coffins and burying soldiers in cemeteries around France – focusing more on the money he can make than on whether, say, the right soldier ends up in the right coffin. You getting the picture of this Pradelle by now?

There are several other characters – this is a big story that owes much to the 19th century novel – but I’ll just mention a couple more: Monsieur Péricourt, Madeleine and Édouard’s father, a tough businessman who had never had time for his artisitic, effeminate son, and Merlin, the dogged, bottom-rung, about-to-retire civil servant who is given the job of reporting on the cemetery project.

Finally, just two more things you should know before I leave the plot. One is that Édouard did not want to return home after the war, so in the military hospital Albert manages to swap his identity – in a swindle, you might say – with a dead soldier, resulting in Édouard Péricourt becoming Eugene Lariviere. His father and sister, therefore, do not know he is alive. The other is the war memorial swindle concocted by Édouard (Eugene), which he finally manages to convince the “even when well-intentioned, lying was not in his nature” Albert to support.

The novel, then, has a complex plot with a rather large cast of characters, but Lemaitre, who is apparently known for his crime novels, handles it all very well so you never feel lost. One of the ways he does this is through vivid characterisation. Every character, from the main “cast” (it’s to be filmed I hear) to the supporting characters, is so strikingly portrayed that you feel you are there in postwar France – there in the streets where poor, injured returned soldiers struggle to make a living, there in the houses of the well-to-do where money is king, there in the cemeteries where Pradelle’s exploited Arab, Chinese and Senegalese workers do what they can to survive.

Another is through the clever set pieces which illuminate the characters, such as Edouard/Eugene’s increasingly bizarre masks – from horse-head to budgerigar – which he creates and wears to cover his horrendously disfigured face. Or the more gruesome scenes in which the taciturn, not very agreeable, but diligent public servant Merlin tramps around cemeteries investigating coffins. Using these set pieces, many of which border on farce, alongside controlled doses of satire and irony, Lemaitre creates a tragicomic tone – but to what end?

“will this war never be over?”

Early postwar, concerning Pradelle’s cemetery plans, the (mostly omniscient) narrator says:

To an entrepreneur, war represents significant business opportunities, even after it is over.

War, then, is the over-riding theme – but war is a big canvas. Lemaitre’s focus is war’s aftermath. What does it mean for those who went and those who stayed, and for the new world they must forge, preferably together. At one point Albert, worn down by his cares and responsibilities, and facing yet another hurdle, wonders, “will this war never be over”. But, as ordinary citizens get back to life, the needs of the returned are forgotten:

ex-soldiers were all the same, forever banging about their war, forever giving little homilies, people had had just about enough of heroes. The true heroes were dead!

A ripe environment, in other words, for cemetery and war memorial scandals, for profiteering – particularly when you add that it was a time of great social change in France, one where the nouveau riche (represented by M. Péricourt) were getting the upper hand over the often money-short aristocracy (represented by Pradelle).

Opposing this almost obsessive focus on money is a sense of resignation. It can be seen in Madeleine who marries the execrable Pradelle. “We each settle down as best we can”, comments our narrator. For many, there is a sense of “emptiness”, this word appearing several times in the novel. They were tough times – the time of “the lost generation” or what the French called “the génération au feu” – for which society was not equipped to cope. So, in the end, what Lemaitre has painted is a picture of a society under stress, a picture which is conveyed most directly through our “everyman”, our struggling returned solider Albert who just wants to make a life for himself but who is also loyal to those who need him:

War had been a lonely business, but it was nothing compared to the period since demobilisation that was beginning to seem a veritable descent into hell …

The novel, as you will have gathered, is replete with swindles, but the greatest of all, Lemaitre is saying, was the abominable treatment, upon their return, of the ordinary soldier.

This is one of those novels which uses a light touch to tell a heavy story. No wonder it won France’s main literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed this book.

Pierre Lemaitre
The great swindle
(trans. by Frank Wynne)
London: MacLehose Press, 2015
ISBN (eBook): 9781848665804