31 DECEMBER 1994, Page 28

Prize-winning novels from France

Anita Brookner

Since French literary prizes are won by writers for the benefit of publishers, it is interesting to note that the great trium- virate of Gallimard, Grasset, and Le Seuil was meagrely represented in this year's awards (and Gallimard not at all). The Goncourt was won by Didier van Cauwer- laert, not unworthily, for Un Aller Simple (Albin Michel), which concerns a North African, born and bred in Marseille and brought up by gypsies, who comes to the attention of the authorities because his papers are not in order. The case is dealt with by a kindly and extremely bien-pensant bureaucrat who is anxious to do his best for him. Deportation seems to be the likely outcome, but what is his country of origin? Morocco, says Amiz; he has never been to Morocco, but he was once given a book called Les Legendes du Monde by a teacher at whose feet he briefly sat, and he spins a tale of belonging to a lost tribe in the Atlas mountains, largely for the benefit of his protector, Jean-Pierre Schneider. Schnei- der, as well as being on the side of the angels, has literary ambitions. With Amiz's unknown tribe he has found the subject he has been looking for all his life. An entry in his journal notes that his book will be called Un Aller Simple, and adds (and it is the author speaking here), Taites qu'on me Use!' They will, they will.

The Renaudot went to Guillaume Le Touze for Comme ton Pere (Editions de l'Olivier), written to a formula which is beginning to show its age, the incorpora- tion of a 19th-century narrative into a chronicle of present-day disaffections. The earlier section consists of the journal of a missionary to Lesotho, while the contem- porary account takes up the geographical, if not the theological, theme. Paul is an expatriate Parisian, writing to his lover from that same Massitissa that was once a missionary centre. He is soon to be joined by his son Giuseppe, who is dying of Aids. The title is explained by the fact that both father and son are homosexual. This is a brooding novel, as befits its themes of love and death. Unfortunately, the contempo- rary characters have no connection with the forebears — or rather the author's fore- bears — and the combination of the two narratives is awkward, even futile. The idea for the novel, with its unusual setting, must have seemed compelling, but its execution leaves something to be desired.

The Prix Femina went to Olivier Rolin He died of a smoking-related disease: poverty.' for his novel Port Soudan (Fiction et Cie), a poetic reminiscence couched in the form of a lament. The narrator, unofficial harbour master in Port Sudan, receives news that an old friend, known simply in the text by the initial A., has died, having addressed a let- ter to him which consists of the two words Cher ami, as if the will to die were stronger than the will to write. He travels to Paris to learn more, interviews the cleaning lady, the concierge, a nurse in the clinic where A. underwent treatment for depression, and an eccentric who knew him by sight as he walked in the Luxembourg Gardens. He builds up a picture of a man destroyed by love for a girl who was in every way his opposite, who was simple, superficial, and without that knowledge of, and involvement in, history which age and experience alone can confer. The particular experience of which she was ignorant was the upheaval of May 1968 (in which the author himself was extremely active) and the commitment to what both narrator and author see as hon- our and renewal. The Paris in which the author finds himself, the post-modern Paris of fast food outlets and political sideshows, convinces him that he is living a posthu- mous life, that his friend's broken heart can be explained not only by love but by treach- ery, and that it is the very anti climax of the years succeeding their idealistic youth that is the conclusive treachery. This is a rather noble novel, how- ever one may disagree with its thesis (the disappointments of age, after all, usually replace the aspirations of youth), couched in a mature style which, perhaps unexpectedly, conveys an impression of great dignity. The Prix Medicis was awarded to IWO" bile dans le Courant du Fleuve by Yves Berger (Grasset), an all but unreadable epic about a lone horseman called Oregon, who discovers a part of America not yet on any map. Part Noble Savage, part Iron John, Oregon discourses in an inflated style calculated to estrange anyone who is not in sympathy with the author's particular form of romanticism. The Prix de l'Academie Frangaise went to Frederic Vitoux for Comedie de Terracina (Seuil), a rather dated fable about a possible meeting between Stendhal and Rossini in 1816, gracefully written and a little hard to take seriously. The Grand Prix du Roman de la Ville de Paris was won by a truly terrific political _ thriller: Les Orphelins by Louis Pauwqs (Editions de Fallois). Set in Paris inw 197u2 this is about a blackmail attempt hicn begins as farce and ends in tragedy. Inter: estingly enough, and in sharp contrast to the Rolin, the author's point of view wont!' appear to be right of centre; at any rate, he details the anarcho-nihilist fall-out of the events of May 1968 with impressive ironyMaintaining the tension throughout its not inconsiderable length, this is something 91.! tour de force. My guess is that Les Olpheli' will be the biggest seller of the season.