Where do you start with a book like Au revoir là-haut, with its heady medley of war, drama, subterfuge, corruption, tragedy, suffering, the dramatic sentinels of the characters in their individuals woes, fears, hopes, and compassion? Pierre Lemaitre’s work showcases the psychology both of the damaged and wounded men of the Great War, but also the human condition as a whole. The brilliance of the book is the ability to contrast similar scandals and moral turpitude with such dramatically different individuals. Its genius for characters and their distinctions is the bedrock of the book.
Of course as it starts out, the dramatic background to it is the great way for these characters to have a brilliant mise-en-scene. The book starts out with a murder, revealed slowly over the course of it, and then another near-murder, near-death experience, followed by a case of changed identity, and at least the mainstay of it: the scandals and scams, perpetrated upon the dead of the Great War, the sacred heroes fallen upon the field of battle.
There is such a palpitating sense of excitement, energy, anticipation, which haunts its pages: that at any moment the scams could be revealed, that everything could collapse like a deck of cards: as it did for both, for the cemeteries and their substandard burials, or for the false monuments to the dead. Albert is an excellent character for this, with his fears, panics, his constant feelings of being stalked, pursued, hunted, which communicate the sentiment of fear and vulnerability that pervades the pages. It’s a great drama. Superbly written in the emotions and feelings of its characters.
It’s hard to know how much symbolism and types, models of traits, that the book uses, since there is such a clear cast of characters, but such a profound and well written book seems like it must be saying deeper things about society and the war. Most striking is the entire treatment of the dead in the book: that two characters who we understand, like, appreciate, see their suffering and losses, commit such an incredible awful and morally bankrupt scam, that of defrauding common, everyday people, who wish to fulfill the noble ideal of commemorating the dead through war memorials. And the monuments drawn up by Edouard: these are clearly false, idealized images of war, intended to be an attractive lure to the subscribers and buyers. The monuments of Souvenir Patriotique are in a sense a fraud, a fakery, a scam in of themselves, selling their false vision of the war: the most touched by it is Edouard’s father, who follows a fake and false image of his son, believing him to be dead when he is in fact very much alive: his final soulagement when at last he finds peace with himself, comes in killing, if by accident, his own son, so that instead of a fake war memorial erected by his child, instead he can be rightfully buried in the family tomb. It is the scandal of the cemeteries, not the war memorials, which attracts the opprobrium of the book, which receives the karmic punishment upon Pradelle.
There have been plenty of books devoted to the subject of the incomprehension between society and the soldiers ostensibly fighting for it: the tale of Le Feu, by Barbusse is an initial stab at the subject, and it is a central theme of the most renowned book of fiction of the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front. But it is of such a clear and vital focus in Au Revoir la-haut that it has to be mentioned: the defining trait of Edouard is his inability to reintegrate into civilian life. There are multiple factors involved of course: his need for heroin to dull his pain, his troubled relationship with his father, the inevitable difficulties of veterans to return to the normal: but above all else it is the gaping hole in Edouard’s face, which he obstinately refuses to fix, and which he only covers with a mask. A dazzling number in fact, many in part fabricated by the young girl Louise to hide it, which permits him some semblance of normalcy.
Perhaps it is a parody of the post-war sentiment that somehow, surely, the war must have meant that a better future had to be inevitable: in France that the sacrifices of the war must have created a better society, that things had to change to make this cost meaningful. And yet of course human nature changed not a whit: look at this, with its mockery of these very hopes to create a land fit for heroes, with its profit gouging cemeteries and its scams of war memorials.
The book should be depressing: it involves a nefarious and cruel scandal, two in fact, the ruin of most of the characters and the death of one. But the ending has a feeling of satisfaction: it comes, I think, from Joseph Merlin, an old fonctionnaire (a French equivalent of a bureaucrat) who despite all of his flaws, despite his uncouth appearance, his dirty and poor manners, is the sole figure of the book who emerges completely honorable and just from the quagmire of corruption and cheating. But what does he represent? The State? Hardly it seems, when there are such excretable members of the French government. Rather, I think that he represents the common decency of mankind, that one can find in the most unusual and unexpected of spots: in a man who seems terribly self-centered, barbarian, uninterested in the world, but who has an iron core at heart.
This is the conclusion to the book: peace. Peace for Mervil. Peace for Edouard’s father M. Péricout Peace for the veterans. Peace above all else for Edouard. It is a far from perfect peace, but it is one nevertheless. A sad, incomplete, undermined one, but enough to make the end of the book one which can inspire tears, but which resolves at least the suffering.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.