cover image The Great Swindle

The Great Swindle

Pierre Lemaitre, trans. from the French by Frank Wynne. Quercus/MacLehose, $24.99 (448p) ISBN 978-1-62365-903-5

Winner of the Prix Goncourt, Lemaitre’s assured, somber exploration of post-WWI French society opens shortly before the 1918 armistice. Lt. Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle murders two of his soldiers to provoke a French attack on German territory, then unsuccessfully tries to eliminate the two witnesses, Albert Maillard and Édouard Péricourt. After the armistice , Albert works menial jobs to pay for morphine for Édouard, whose jaw was blown off when he saved Albert from Pradelle. Pradelle, meanwhile, makes his fortune reburying French soldiers in proper cemeteries. Édouard decides to exploit his country’s desire to honor fallen soldiers by contracting to build memorials and then absconding with the down payments. Lemaitre (Alex) captures the venal capitalism of the postwar period, in which Pradelle’s company buries German bodies as French soldiers and saws off corpses’ feet to fit into cheap coffins; meanwhile, politicians speak of honoring the dead, but soldiers like Édouard and Albert live in poverty. Despite his unscrupulous scheme, Édouard proves impossible to dislike. His determination to play a great trick on the society that betrayed him is infectious, and readers cannot help rooting for his plans as they reach their dark, bizarrely joyous fruition. (Sept.)