This is my review of Le collier rouge by Jean-Christophe Rufin.
In the small French town of Berry where life is returning to normal after the First World War, Jacques Morlac is the only prisoner left in the barracks, while his faithful dog Guillaume, somewhat battered after his own spell in the trenches, barks mournfully for his master for hours on end. Lantier, the bourgeois young judge appointed to investigate the case and decide Morlac’s fate is fascinated by the stubborn working class man who has a foot in both camps, having been decorated for bravery only to commit an “outrage” against his nation, although we have to wait until the final pages to discover exactly what Morlac has done. Apart from the suspense this generates, the interest lies in the surrounding questions. What motivated Morlac to act as he did? Why does he seems so bent on being punished, rejecting the extenuating circumstances Lantier suggests? Why is he avoiding his former lover when he clearly wishes to see the son she has borne him? And why does he appear to hate his faithful dog?
This is one of those carefully constructed tales which depend totally on how the information is dripped out to keep us hooked. Rufin, who seems more in his element with short stories and in this case what is almost a novella, is very skilful in the deceptive ease with which he spins out and reveals a simple plot which could be summarised in a few words, itself inspired by a colleague’s anecdote about his grandfather.
Although the English translation has been praised, this is particularly worth reading in the original French if possible for the clear, economical prose which captures a sense of rural France, with locals spearing trout or hurrying to harvest the wheat as autumn storms threaten. This is also a subtle exploration of human – and canine – psychology: issues of loyalty, duty, wounded pride, jealousy, questioning of the accepted system and traditional class divides. Cynicism lurks beneath the lip service paid to patriotism even in a conformist like Lanvier, set off to fight as a “youthful idealist”, only to end with the private subversive thought that the suffering of the soldiers seems more worthy of respect than the ideals of those who inflicted it upon them. “No one could have lived through this war and still believe that the individual has any value”. Yet when it came to condemning people, justice required that they be presented to him as individuals.”
Even if one is not a dog lover, it is hard not to be moved by the rapport Lanvier in fact everyone apart from Morlac seems to develop with the dog. Although the description of his wounds make Guillaume sound almost repulsive, his eyes are remarkably expressive, not merely conveying his own emotion but seeming to empathise with others.