We live near many refugees. There’s a man who calls himself “Draco”; there’s a Nigerian who sells tissues for whatever price you want; there’s a family who crossed the Mediterranean in a boat. The stories of all these people are undoubtedly amazing, but I am not here to tell them to you. Instead, I am here to reveal to you a book that tells of refugees from even farther away: the Orient.
La petite fille de Monsieur Linh (Monsieur Linh and His Child), by Philippe Claudel, tells of Mr. Linh and his baby granddaughter, Sang diû. We don’t know where Mr. Linh comes from, although he probably lived in Vietnam or China. He arrives in France by boat, bewildered and disoriented. One day, sitting on a bench, he meets Mr. Bark. Pulled together by a bizarre closeness, the two men become fast friends. But when Mr. Linh is swept away to an old person’s home, he must fight to meet Mr. Bark again.
Although the tale is simple, it’s also unbelievably sad. The piercing wording of the story makes it memorable: I can clearly remember a scene where frail Mr. Linh stands at the stern of the boat. When Claudel describes him as a puppet, ruffled in the wind, I feel incredible sympathy toward the old man. The way Claudel describes the tale makes it simultaneously tranquil and disturbing.
Even though this is a story of sadness, it is also one of friendship. The men have many things in common: Mr. Linh’s wife died, and so did Mr. Bark’s; Mr. Linh saw war, and so did Mr. Bark; Mr. Linh loves Sang diû, and so does Mr. Bark. All the while speaking different languages. One aspect I found odd (but interesting) was that people who spoke his language mocked, laughed, and cursed him, yet Mr. Bark, who could not understand what the old man was saying, became quite attached to him.
La petite fille de monsieur Linh is a beautiful book. Some of us may heave annoyed sighs when we hear the word “refugee” (we “have our own problems already”), but perhaps, if we were to listen to their stories, we would think twice about sighing. Perhaps, if we lived side by side with them through their troubles, we wouldn’t even think of sighing. Perhaps, we would love them . . .