cover image On Leave

On Leave

Daniel Anselme, trans. from the French by David Bellos. FSG/Faber and Faber, $24 (224p) ISBN 978-0-86547-895-4

This new translation of author and journalist Anselme’s first novel (his second and last was 1964’s Relations) not only introduces the English-speaking world to a forgotten classic, little-read since its 1957 debut, it fills the surprising silence in French literature regarding the Algerian War. The story concerns a brief soldiers’ leave to Paris, as experienced by one Sergeant Lachaume. Together with his friends, the infantryman Lasteyrie and the corporal Valette, Lachaume represents all of the reluctant conscripts who, from 1954 to 1962, fought an unpopular war on behalf of France’s settlers in Algeria, only to return to an ungrateful populace. Suffice to say, no hero’s welcome awaits Lachaume, whose wife has left him and whose dearest friends keep their distance, sending him on a long and drunken bender from deserted train stations to dive bars, punctuated by encounters with lecturing Marxists, tragic soubrettes, and homeless ex-Legionnaires. Amidst all this, Anselme finds time for extended inquiries into French identity (including, cheekily, a discussion of the pleasures of eating frogs) and magnificent renderings of Parisian cityscape, often through the eyes of its less fortunate citizens. Strikingly, there are few recollections of the Algerian conflict itself—Anselme never served—but this is nevertheless the brief, elegiac, searching novel that one of France’s most unpopular wars deserves. (Mar.)