MAY 26, 2014
IT’S EASY to understand why David Bellos and his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, chose to bring out the French author Daniel Anselme’s debut novel On Leave in its first English translation. First published in France during the height of the French-Algerian War, the novel tells the story of three French soldiers on leave from the North African insurgency in Paris. Despite the timeliness of its narrative, it garnered almost nothing in the way of coverage or sales upon its initial release in 1957. Today, war literature, and specifically fiction by and about veterans, is having a bit of a moment here in the US. Since 2012, novels and short stories by Kevin Powers, David Abrams, Ben Fountain, Lea Carpenter, Roxana Robinson, Phil Klay, Katey Schulz, Cara Hoffman, and others have explored the experiences of American servicepeople and veterans in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on the homefront, with varying degrees of success. And the parallels between the French-Algerian conflict and contemporary American insurgencies are, on the surface, legion: a foreign campaign in Muslim lands, a detached civilian populace, a militarily inferior but zealous enemy. It’s hard to fault the publisher for trying to ride the wave.
But unlike Moby-Dick, The Sound and the Fury, or Blood Meridian, On Leave is no rediscovered classic. Indeed, the years only confirm the contemporary French judgment of the novel as insubstantial. Anselme, a veteran of the French communist underground during the Second World War, but not of the French Army, said that he wrote the book to give voice to a generation of French soldiers that “had nobody to speak for it.” Bellos declares similar motives in the novel’s introduction, when he cites the lack of fiction about the French-Algerian conflict as one of the reasons he undertook its translation. While this mission is laudable, on the part of both author and translator, On Leave is not the vehicle to achieve it.
The novel’s protagonist Lachaume, formerly a teacher and intellectual, is a sergeant with a year’s experience fighting in North Africa, and only eight months left before he finishes his three-year term of conscripted service. Along with two privates, the working-class Valette and the dandy Lasteyrie, Lachaume has been granted a 10-day leave in Paris, over the New Year, before he returns to the war zone. Like countless generations of soldiers before them, the young men spend their precious holiday flitting from one bar to the next, one friend to the next, in the search of entertainment and female attention. Their adventures almost always taking place under the cover of night.
Anselme’s sensitivity in depicting this motley threesome is exquisite, and his training as a journalist shines through in his ability to capture the small things to which any soldier on leave can relate — the older veteran eager to recount his own war stories, the civilians keen to espouse politicized views on the conflict, the estrangement of soldiers returning to a society that has little stake in the bloodshed. The themes are universal, but also well-worn. Rare is the soldier who doesn’t feel alienated by war, his youth stolen in some way and feeling “no mercy for the young man he had been” — but it is the author’s duty to root those feelings in specifics, and though the novel is ostensibly about the French-Algerian War, one comes away knowing almost nothing about the conflict, the landscapes in which it unfolds, the particular qualities or characteristics of the battles fought there, what the soldiers were doing during their time there, what they experienced that might have scarred their psyches so.
As befits a French novel published in the 1950s, there is no plot to speed things along. The characters are adrift, and the reader along with them. While Anselme’s descriptions of Paris are spot-on and rarely overstated, the narrative itself is so slight that it sags under the weight of the elegant setting. Lachaume carries on a chaste flirtation with a German woman, visits a friend who is a doctor, and has dinner with Valette’s family in their working-class suburb. Individual episodes rarely flag, but taken as a whole they crawl along like a soldier under heavy fire.
The novel fails to slip the bounds of the mundane for the very reason Anselme purportedly wrote the book: On Leave is, at heart, a “message novel.” Anselme may have wanted to speak for the “voiceless” servicemen irreparably scarred by a pointless war, but his three soldiers think and act as agents for this theme, rather than as true, vital, believable individuals. The central set piece of the novel, intended, like much of the novel, to depict the callousness of French civilians, is a dinner with Valette’s family. During the meal, a cousin, a local communist party boss, decries the war in politicized terms, leading Valette and Lachaume to explode in shouts that voice Anselme’s message like a barker with a bullhorn.
A recent novel, Greg Baxter’s The Apartment, is in many ways the antithesis of On Leave. Like Lachaume, its protagonist is a veteran of a Muslim insurgency (in this case post-2003 Iraq) but Baxter portrays this fact obliquely, and, as a consequence, the book’s thematic waters run much deeper. Baxter never articulates an explicit message, and never has to. In a narrative overtly about nothing more than an American finding an apartment in a wintry European city, we learn a great deal about a particular war and what it did to those who fought in it — a great deal more than Anselme is able to communicate in a novel that directly takes on the same subjects.
As it happens, there is a true rediscovered classic from the French-Algerian War; it just doesn’t happen to be a novel. Originally published in 1964, David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice was resurrected in the mid-2000s, to become one of the most influential texts shaping the US military’s counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan. Drawing from Galula’s time serving as an officer in the French Army in Algeria, one of the book’s central lessons is that you can’t fight your way out of an insurgency, and frontal assaults never work. Had Anselme adopted a more indirect approach to communicate his message, it might have met a different fate. As it stands, and despite Bellos’ best efforts, On Leave’s righteous charge will yield nothing more than a silent and anonymous death on literature’s battlegrounds.