The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre

Review published on July 17, 2017.

This novel won France’s premier literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 2013, past winners include Proust, Malraux, de Beauvoir and Duras. In France, Lemaitre is revered as a literary author but I was only familiar with his crime novels published in English. It was a real pleasure to discover that Lemaitre is capable of producing an epic about post First World War France of such breadth and depth. It is a novel that lays bare the complexity and tragedy of the aftermath of war. A story of soldiers returning to the failing promise of a better world – a new idyll that never materialised. These men faced a harsh new reality, for many much worse than their pre-war existence. The Great Swindle is fictional, but at the heart of the novel is a complex fraud that bares some similarities to real events that shook France shortly after WWI.

Lemaitre has utilises a real scandal but added a fictional swindle, the two in tandem very cleverly juxtapose the situation of those who had a good war and a prosperous peace (corrupt and greedy men) with those who became the victims of the post war world (the dispossessed and the forgotten). The Great Swindle is a literary novel of the down trodden and the high and mighty of French society in the post war period. Lemaitre exposes the dark and bitter experience of many returning soldiers; the burden of surviving the war, the corruption of the country they returned to, the estrangement from loved ones and the often brutal reaction of those who didn’t go to war and resented the survivors. It is a novel about people, about how lovers deal with the returning men, about rejection and envy.

The Great Swindle is the tale of three men, Albert Maillard, Édouard Péricourt and Henri d’Aulney Pradelle, all privileged by the standards of the time. War strikes each man differently. At the end of the war an armistice was agreed but the final ceasefire not put into effect leading to the death of many in hostilities that could have been prevented. Maillard, Péricourt and Pradelle are involved in one last mission to take Hill 113 from the Germans. What provokes this action becomes a terrible secret that the three are forced to share and to carry into peacetime. Pericourt is grotesquely wounded, Mallard narrowly escapes a firing squad, and Pradelle rues the end of hostilities. Finally demobbed, they lead very different lives on their return to the civilian world. Pradelle is determined to make good at any cost, the other two seek redress for the abandonment by their country, trying to stay alive, to survive. Anger and resentment, entitlement and greed lead the men to cross paths. Two plots are hatched to strike at the establishment for very different reasons.

Lemaitre deals with the paradoxical view we all have of the end of war as a victory or at least the return of peace and the assumption that this is automatically better. We imagine horror ending, soldiers returning, families reunited, jobs regained, lives resumed. The reality for these three men is much darker, much more complex, there is no easily found dividing line between war and peace. Uneasy questions about what war does to people about what we find out about people in war emerge. All three men become involved, for very different reasons, in swindling the state and the people of France using the most despicable means, appealing to the sentiment of the nation for the dead.

The pace of the novel never lets a vast story of epic proportions run away with itself. The damaged characters and their situation are beautifully drawn. A complex but plausible plot is very deftly handled and is very easy to follow. The characters are raw, they invoke disgust, sympathy, empathy and pity.

The Great Swindle has been referred to as; “A masterly epic of post-war France” by Macha Séry in Le Monde; I would not disagree with that. Although a serious literary work, this novel reads like a thriller. This is a book of some power, the plot lays bare the corruption of the post war world, but also the pain and healing of a society so deeply scarred by the conflagration. The writing is so good that I almost wish that Lemaitre would stick to literary novels this writing is superior to that of the Verhoeven trilogy.

Lemaitre first came to prominence with the Verhoeven trilogy of crime novels. Alex, published in 2013, established a fantastic detective character in Verhoeven. It was a good suspense novel with a twist on a twist that is memorable. The follow up novels Irene (2014, actually chronologically the first in the series) and Camille (2015) were good reads but not exceptional; it was more the character of Camille Verhoeven that did it for me, rather than the plot. However, Alex and Camille both received C.W.A. International Awards so they are rated very highly by the critics and fans.

If this book is to your taste I would recommend some recently published novels The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler, All For Nothing by Walter Kempinski and Snowdrops by A.D. Miller. Also another winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1990, Jean Rouard’s Fields of Glory.

Paul Burke 5/4

The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre
MacLehose Press 9781848665798 pbk Nov 2016

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