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On LeaveReaders with an interest in France will welcome Penguin’s republication of ‘On Leave’ (La Permission) by Daniel Anselme – a forgotten novel about a largely forgotten war. The contemporary relevance of the book is apparent from the outset.

This is not a battlefield account but rather the story of three young conscripts on Christmas leave from the Algerian War in 1956. Lachaume, a teacher with academic aspirations, Valette, a Communist, and a streetwise teddy boy called Lasteyrie. They spend ten days in and around Paris.

The novel describes how their war experiences have isolated them from other people, even from their closest relations. When they encounter older veterans of past wars they appear as stupid, bloodthirsty, and what is worse, boring, fools.

Lachaume, the teacher-turned-sergeant, known as ‘Prof’, has separated from his young wife while away at the war and he can’t bring himself to visit his widowed but domineering mother. Valette, previously so relentlessly cheerful that he earned the nickname ‘Vache-qui-rit’ after the laughing cow on the cheese label, has become moody with his family and prone to angry outbursts about the lack of effective peace-making by the Communist Party. The pencil-moustached Lasteyrie may appear to be the lightweight of the group but it is he who inspires the book’s symbolic ending: the creation of a mock-memorial to what they have gone through.

The book provides a powerful evocation of the atmosphere of Fifties Paris: the friends listen to ‘le jazz’, drink pernod and endlessly smoke cigarettes. The petty concerns of everyday life seem absurd and give rise to feelings of existential despair.

The penultimate chapter describes a long circular meander cum bar-crawl through the streets of Paris in the hours immediately before the departure of their train back to the war. From the Pont Neuf they walk, ironically, past the Arc de Triomphe, then coming back towards the Seine and Les Grands Boulevards they pass through Clichy. They finally reach the public garden on the Ile Saint-Louis. It is here that they improvise their own memorial – customising a statue commemorating France’s colonial past.

The novel ends with the almost secret departure of the troop train from the Gare de Lyon at the end of their leave.

The book has many resonances. The character of the German girl, Lena, who becomes a quasi-sister to the three is reminiscent of Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, although in this case they make a gang of four.

Readers who have seen the film Mesrine: Killer Instinct will remember the brutal opening scene. The experiences of the central character in Algeria render him incapable of settling to civilian life when he is discharged. Subsequently he embarks on a career as a gangster. What will become of Lachaume, Villette and Lasteyrie ?

It is, however, of Owen Sheers’s recent verse-drama, Pink Mist, which also concerns three young soldiers and the damage wrought by an unpopular war, that one is most reminded.

The book contains as an Introduction an informative short essay about the author and the cultural climate of the novel by its translator David Bellos; there is also in an Appendix a contemporary interview with Daniel Anselme by Maurice Pons.

Bellos describes how the novel came very close to disappearing entirely and talks of the “service that literature alone can provide”. In spite of being firmly rooted in a particular period of French history, the controversy concerning how we memorialise the First World War makes the timing of this reissue particularly apposite.

Penguin Classics/Hardback/£16.99/9780141393872
Book published March 2014
Des Brennan

2 February 2014