Fighting to live again

This is my review of The Great Swindle: Au revoir la-haut (English edition) by Pierre Lemaitre.

Unlikely comrades, wealthy, handsome, artistic Edouard and humble, nervous accounts clerk Albert are thrown together in the horror of the French trenches at the end of the First World War, where they have the misfortune of being under the command of the ruthless Henri Aulnay-Pradelle, who will stop at nothing to exploit the situation to enhance his reputation and enrich himself. When the two men find themselves in a desperate situation after the war, Albert is eventually persuaded to assist Edouard in a bold but crazy “great swindle”, the title of this French novel in translation. Their motivations are mixed: the need for money, temptation of great wealth, desire for revenge against a society which has given them a raw deal, or in Edouard’s case the “buzz” and sheer fun of the risk as an escape from the bleakness of everyday existence.

This well-plotted, ingenious, imaginative and darkly humorous yarn is not only a page turner which keeps one guessing to the last page, but also provides a vivid portrayal of the aftermath of a war in which many people were on the make, and more effort was put into memorials for the dead than providing for the wounded and shell-shocked survivors. Most of the main characters are very fully developed, with complex personalities and shifting emotions. In the midst of his wry cynicism, the author manages to arouse our sympathy and a sense of poignancy for the flawed characters and sufferings of Albert, Edouard and the stern father who has rejected him, M. Péricourt.

Lemaître is well-known for his noir crime thrillers, and there are elements of the macabre in this novel together with the knowledge that he is quite capable of dispensing with any of the characters, and that Albert and Edouard, corrupted through force of circumstance, will not necessarily win out at the end of the day.

A minor criticism is that the early chapters tend to be rather slow and spell out incidents in repetitious detail. However, the narrative gradually gathers pace as “the plot thickens” and I became engrossed as it twisted to the final denouement.

Although the English translation seems to have well done, preserving the sardonic tone of the original, it is worth reading this in the original French if possible, partly to get a stronger flavour of the times, but also because it’s a rich source of idioms and clichés. Ironically, I read this by chance in parallel with Pat Barker’s World War 1 novel “Toby’s Room”, which is partly about young men being suffering from terrible facial injuries: I doubt if two novels on a similar theme could be more different in structure and style, but although less “literary” I found Lemaître’s novel more engaging and moving.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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