"I don't really know where to start. It is rather difficult. So much time has passed, that the words can never be recaptured, nor can the faces, the smiles, the wounds." Still, he needs to try, to say what has been burdening his heart for twenty years. Philippe Claudel opens his hauntingly beautiful, dramatic novel with these confessions of his first person narrator. Later on, he explains that words are difficult for him. "During my lifetime, I hardly spoke. Now I write as if I had died since then. And, deep down, that is true. That's the real, true truth. For a long time now, I feel dead. I pretend that I still live a bit. I am on borrowed time. That's all."
The events that continue to disturb the nameless narrator of LES AMES GRISES take place in a small town in northern France during World War I, in a region so close to the frontline, that the sounds of war provide a constant rumbling background. In the early days in 1914, town life follows its usual course and the war, assumed to be short lived, does not seem to concern the townspeople too much. The passing soldiers add good business for some and brings much needed work for others. As the narration touches on events later in time, Claudel convincingly evokes the impact on the town of the steadily growing viciousness of war: the hospital fills with wounded and near-dead and starving, exhausted, brutalized soldiers roam the countryside.
However, it is the murder in 1917 of a beautiful ten-year-old girl, Belle de jour, that disrupts the still prevailing attitude of complacency among the important "gentlemen". The "Case", as it is introduced early on by the narrator, raises questions that dig much deeper into the society's fabric than a simple police procedural would be able to explore. In his recounting of the events surrounding Belle's death, the protagonist appears to hold his own - belated(?) - investigation by introducing, one by one, many of the ghosts, whose long shadows still haunt him into the present. What may have been his role at the time? Through a "parade" of richly drawn characters, who had been either directly, indirectly or possibly involved with the young girl's life or the Case, Claudel weaves a captivating, subtly structured web of evidence, rumours, suspicions, interrogations and deliberate disregard of clues. From the judge, the prosecutor, the father of the victim, to police officers and military, to other important persons in the town and even in the protagonist's own life, all the brilliantly brought to life as individuals with their strengths and weaknesses.
The report, being put together by the narrator, is seemingly written in separate memory blocks (chapters), thus justifying the non-linear structure of his account. The reader's attention is constantly required to pick up clues and connections that will eventually reveal much more than the reader would expect at any one time. The conclusion is dramatic and comes with more than one unexpected punch. It also epitomizes the meaning of the title "âmes grises - grey souls" in a way that will keep the reader's mind ponder its deeper truth: "Nothing is either totally black or totally white, it is the grey that wins. For human beings and their souls, it's the same... You are a grey soul, really grey like all of us". Having read the novel in its original French, all translations are mine. Claudel's exquisite language, that is full of nuance, rich in local colour and often complex structures, will provide a major challenge for any translator. It succeeds beautifully to capture those bleak and worrying times. [Friederike Knabe]