Sunday, 16 January 2011

Book of the Month: Little Boy Lost (Marghanita Laski)

The backdrop of Little Boy Lost, Marghanita Laski’s 1949 novel, is France, ravaged and extirpated at the end of the Second World War. The ‘schwerpunkt’ of the novel is the encounter between an Englishman and a five year old boy over a period of a week.

Hilary Wainwright is an Oxbridge educated poet who learns at the height of war that his little boy, whom he had left behind in France with his wife when France felled to the advancing German army in 1940, is lost. Two years later, the war finally over, Wainwright returns to France and amidst the devastation and desolation begins a search for his lost boy, on whom he had laid his eyes only once—on the day he was born.

Wainwright’s Jewish wife, Lisa, had stayed behind in Paris when her country was occupied by the Germans, and had been heavily involved with the resistance movement. Wainwright has received three letters from her, the last one sent a day before she was captured and killed by the Gestapo. She had passed the care of their son to her friend, Jeanne, who was also involved in the resistance. It is Jeanne’s fiancé, Pierre, who, in 1943, had given the news to Wainwright that his only child was lost. Jeanne too was caught and killed by the Gestapo; however, the day before she was betrayed, she had passed the boy on to another contact. The trail has gone cold at that point. It is Pierre, who has meticulously followed all the possible traces and, to the extent one can be certain, has traced the missing boy to a Catholic Orphanage in a bucolic town fifty miles north of Paris.

Wainwright arrives in France. He has to decide whether the boy in the orphanage is really his own.

Wainwright is deeply ambivalent about what lays ahead. The reappearance of the boy who may or may not be his son has brought to surface emotions, and, linked to them, self-knowledge he has learned to suppress or ignore since he first learnt of his wife’s death and the disappearance of his son. Ever since Pierre informs him that he has traced a boy who might be his son, Wainwright has tied himself up in knots about how he is going to determine with certainty that the boy in the orphanage is his own, acknowledging only fleetingly what this doubt is masking: he is not sure whether he wants his boy back in his life. Ever since he learnt about the disappearance of his son—‘something that was made from the only security (his relationship with Lisa) he had ever known’—who, Wainwright had, until then, felt would one day provide him with comfort and warmth, he had learnt to cope with the sense of loss and despair by not thinking about the child, not thinking what fate might have befallen him; and, by not thinking, he has stopped feeling, to the extent that he has become almost comfortable with the wretchedness of his existence. So acute are his misgivings of love and tenderness that he is distrustful of the one chance that is given him that might bring back happiness in his life. ‘I don’t want them [love, tenderness, and happiness],’ he tales Pierre. ‘I can do without those things. I couldn’t endure being hurt again . . . I have got nothing to offer a child . . . I just want to be left alone so that I can’t be hurt again.’ Wainwright, who has had a very difficult relationship with his own mother, is far from convinced that he would be an ideal father, especially to a boy with whom he has not bonded and who may not even be his own son. The night before he leaves for the town in which the orphanage is situated, Wainwright subjects Pierre to repeated questions, expressing doubts about Pierre’s methods, all of which serve to confirm that it would be impossible to confirm beyond any shadow of doubt that the child in question is his own. At the same time, this is his only chance to trace his child; there are no other leads, and if he does not catch the next day’s train, he would have to live forever with the knowledge that he let go of the one chance of finding his son, whom, his wife had written him in what turned out to be her last letter, he must save. ‘Trust your instinct,’ Pierre advises him. ‘If this is really your son . . . you will know as soon as you set eyes on him.’

Still assailed by doubts, Wainwright decides to travel to the town, but without Pierre whose presence, he fears, would put pressure on him to accept the child as his own. ‘I’ve got to be free to escape,’ he tells Pierre.

Upon reaching the town (referred to throughout the novel as town A___), the desolation around him, the humbling of the once proud people, and the widespread corruption does nothing to alleviate Wainwright’s gloom. And when he meets the boy, whom the nuns at the orphanage have named Jean, his instincts tell him nothing. At the behest of the Mother Superior, Wainwright agrees to spend a week in the depressing town and spend two hours every day with the boy. Over the next few days a bond develops between Wainwright and the boy. The boy clutches to the comfort of the nascent relationship with the avidity of one deprived of personal warmth and love. This only serves to increases Wainwright’s unease. He is none the wiser whether the boy is his son. He has not shown even a flicker of recognition at the name of his mother and her friend, and Wainwright has seen no resemblance between his features and those of his dead wife. He is therefore surprised when more than one person draws his attention to the resemblance between the boy’s facial features to his own. He also remembers that his wife’s Polish aunts had large dark eyes just as the boy. However, none of this, he keeps repeating to himself, clinches the issue. As the week draws to a close, and the Mother Superior becomes less and less subtle in her suggestion that he should accept the boy as his own, Wainwright’s resistance grows; he is only too aware that the little boy is dangerously close to reawakening his sensibility to love, and he is not sure he is capable of dealing with it.  He tries to escape the predicament by finding succour in short term, purely sexual, relationship with the niece of the owner of the hotel in which he is staying. The niece is to return to Paris on what would be Wainwright’s last day in the town. He decides that the boy is most probably not his own; thinks of a number of practical difficulties he would face if he were to return to England with the boy; rationalises that there is no urgency; that he can always return to the town some other time, perhaps next year, and make a decision; and resolves on finding comfort in the ample bosom of the hotel owner’s niece in her apartment in Paris. Then, the day before his return journey, in a Funfair in the town, Wainwright notices an object that rekindles an old memory which would give him the courage to do that which he must.

Little Boy Lost is one of those rare novels that can be enjoyed at different levels. The dilemmas facing Laski’s taciturn protagonist have themes that go beyond the confines of the narrative structure. How does one come to terms with loss? How does one deal with uncertainty? Can one trust one’s instincts? Does one have the moral compass to guide oneself to take decisions that have far-reaching consequences?  However, the novel works extremely well as a straightforward tale of a father looking for his lost son. Laski’s prose—pellucid and not overburdened with sentimentality—has a hypnotic quality to it. Each sentence is more than just a conveyer of facts; it has the exciting quality of saying what it has to say distinctly; each sentence conveys more than what its length might allow it to portray. This is a writer who obviously cares deeply for her prose, who has fully invested herself in it.  The novel is expertly paced and reads like a thriller. With minimal of fuss Laski makes the reader aware of the subintelligitur—she does not have to spell everything out; she credits the reader’s intelligence. The denouement, when it arrives, leaves the reader feeling incredibly moved.

In Little Boy Lost Marghanita Laski combines sharply observant eye with penetrating psychological understanding. She writes like a dream. Nothing can be bettered in this excellent novel.