Monday, April 13, 2009

What cannot be bought on the black market... (Books - Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski)

Marghanita Laski writes poignantly and observantly of post-World War II France - the setting of her Little Boy Lost. This will make most sense if you go here and read my first post about this book so that you know all about the child that Hilary and his love, Lisa, had in France, her subsequent death, and the disappearance of that child. Hilary is a poet, a literate intellectual who had one love - Lisa - but now that she is dead, he holds human contact at arms length and prefers to experience the pleasure of sources less likely to wound - a well furnished home, good books, French coffee, French food, French wine. France was the source of everything Hilary held in high regard:
...where these ruins now stood, the people who were part of the nation he regarded as the most civilised in the world had led full satisfactory lives, eating with informed pleasure, arguing with informed logic, strolling up and down in the warm summer evenings, sitting at cafes and watching the promenade pass by. Here houswives had made their purchases with that unconcious pleasure and pride that comes from the competent practice of a craft, prodding the cabbages to see what sort of hearts they'd made, testing each length of cloth, pulling the glove leather this way and that, purchasing by their own skill from shopkeepers who respected this wuality in their customers.
Post-war France is a tragedy. Only two bus lines run in Paris. Coffee is ersatz, meat is scarce but anything can be had on the black market. It has also become a nation of those who collaborated and those who resisted, making for tense suspicions among neighbors. It has become a nation of those who can or are willing to pay for what they enjoy, and those who will suffer their bad lot together until they can rebuild what they had. This ravaged France is the perfect backdrop for this story. Pierre locates a child he believes might be Hilary and Lisa's in an orphanage in a small town in Northern France. Hilary gets angry at Pierre's support of deGaulle, whom Hilary considers a fascist, and so breaks with Pierre, going to the town on his own. He stays in the only hotel standing, run by collaborationists. He orders expensive, black-market meals so that he may enjoy a semblance of the France he was used to. And he meets a young, delicate, sensitive child called Jean each evening at five o'clock and takes him for walks and raspberry sodas, trying in this time to look for some evidence of whether Jean could be his son. Post war France is a place out of which one can still squeeze fine delicacies if one is willing to pay, or one can live in the midst of its broken streets and drink its terrible chicory and suffer with others out of love, rebuilding it slowly. This is precisely the conflict that Hilary faces - will he buy what he needs, holding the world at a safe distance? Or will he give up his selfish pleasures and take a sensitive little boy into his life? Hilary seem intolerant by nature - an intellectual's luxury. Can he love again? Somehow Marghanita Laski makes of a stuffy prig a sensitive hero and of this single question she has fashioned a nail-biter of a book. I stayed up two hours past my bed time finishing it the other night. I have already waxed on about the quality of Laski's writing in my first post. Go read this book, it has everything - love, history, tough moral questions suspense, and observant, lean writing - what a wonderful find, and to think, I was initially drawn to it for the cover!

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