I read a large number of books during 2015 and was delighted to end my reading year with The Great Swindle, a highly impressive and entertaining novel from French writer Pierre Lemaitre which although recently published has drawn comparison with Balzac, Zola and Hugo – and rightly so in my opinion.
This superb novel has a vast scale and contains many complex and colourful characters and a very ingenious series of plots and subplots which kept me entertained throughout the book’s 464 pages. Opening at the end of the First World War, we meet the two young soldiers, Albert and Édouard, on their final battle field just before the armistice is agreed. Both young men are devastated by the horrific events of the last few days of the war and are demobbed to a civilian life which no longer has any place for them, Édouard with terrible injuries and Albert with what today would be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Pierre Lemaitre is under no illusions about the glories of war or the competence of the army. We know of course about the battle-fields of Verdun and other locations, but Lemaitre is a master at capturing the impact of these cataclysmic events on individual soldiers. Even demobilisation is a chaotic experience revealing the breakdown of military organisation once a war is finished and it seems to be a miracle that the men eventually return to Paris. However, life in the capital turns out to be extremely challenging for both men and after weeks of poverty and hardship, the heavily disfigured Édouard comes up with a scheme from their jointly rented room to make vast amounts of money by an ambitious plan of deception.
It would be so easy to spoil this book for readers by describing what happens next, so I will confine myself to attempting to give a flavour of this great novel.
Albert, the reluctant foot soldier has few qualities to help him get on in the world. Destined for low-paid work as a sandwich board carrier, he has a sense of extreme loyalty to his seriously disfigured friend Édouard who helped him so much on the battlefield. He cares for Édouard in every way he can, even entering the criminal underworld to procure supplies of morphine to dull Édouard’s pain. Édouard is an altogether more resourceful figure, the son of wealthy banker and also a highly talented artist. His frustration at the long period of agonising recovery feeds into his lively mind and he draws out complex plans for a scheme to gather phenomenal riches by highly illegal and immoral means. Albert on the other hand is an honest man who finds himself gradually being drawn into Édourd’s scheme despite his deep misgivings. But his hunt through the underworld for ever-increasing supplies of morphine have broken the bounds of his simple morality and have opened him up to a descent into greater acts of criminality.
Much of the novel concerns the means whereby war-graves were constructed for the many fallen soldiers. After the war there was a great desire to honour the fallen and apart from the new cemeteries which needed to be constructed, each town and village wanted a war memorial of its own. What scope for ambitious businessmen to win huge contracts for exhuming the dead from the battlefields and re-burying them in proper cemeteries. Yet also how much scope for money-making short-cuts, every type of scam and also a level of general incompetence which will surprise no-one who has every worked on projects like this.
The author, Pierre Lemaitre must have put vast amount of work into this book for the level of detail on this work is highly impressive. Yet, this is not a litany of cold facts, for he manages to suffuse the whole process with a touch of humour which keeps the reader able to skim through this tale of misplaced corpses, bodies crammed into too-small coffins, bones misplaced and mixed up with different owners, even falling prey to the occasional wandering hound.
Into this situation arrives a government inspector, Joseph Merlin, an old and cantankerous bureaucrat who refuses to be fobbed off by small-time officials and scheming contractors. Merlin takes his work very seriously and produces reports on the work which dismay his superiors who simply want to get the work over and done with. Alas, the scale of the various frauds is so great that covering it up ceases to be an option and ministers and senior official find themselves unable to stem the flow of Merlin’s shocking reports which soon threaten their own reputation and careers in public service.
By this time we have a vast array of characters before us, all beautifully drawn, from the irascible and villanous Henri d’Aulney Pradelle who tries to make his fortune from this business, to 11-year-old girl Louise, the mens’ landlady’s daughter who works with Édouard to bring his scheme to completion. We meet bankers, workmen, servant-girls, mistresses, and chancers of every description, all of whom are drawn with great detail and almost affection by this highly skilled writer. By the time I finished the book, many of them lived on for a few days in my mind making me wish I was just starting the book rather than adding it to my pile of completed reads.
It always seems to be a good thing when an author credits those books and writers who have influenced him. Pierre Lemaitre goes out of his way to acknowledge his debt to a whole pantheon of writers,
The Great Swindle owes much to the novels of the immediate post-war period, those of Henri Barbusse, Maurice Genevoix, Jules Romain and Gabriel Chevallier . . . throughout the book, I have borrowed here and there from various writers: Émile Ajar, Louis Aragon, Gérald Aubert, Michel Audiard, Homer, Honoré de Balzac, Ingmar Bergman, Georges Bernanos, Georges Brassens, Stephen Crane, Jean-Louis Curtis, Denis Diderot, Jean-Louis Ézine, Gabriel García Marquez, Victor Hugo, Kazuo Ishiguro, Carson McCullers, Jules Michelet, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Antoine-François Prévost, Marcel Proust, Patrick Rambaud, La Rochefoucauld and one or two others. I hope they will consider my borrowing a homage.
While no doubt these writers helped to form Lemaitre’s writing, I have no doubt that he will in due course form part of someone else’s list of people worth crediting with advancing the French novel.
Other reviews of The Great Swindle:
The Great Swindle was translated by Frank Wynne.