I learned about this novel from two different sources: one, it won a big French literary prize–the Prix Goncourt–which helped me to generate a list of 20th century French writing I might want to check out, and two, another novel by Tournier was placed on Le Monde’s top 100 books of all time, which is not limited to French writing and contains some really interesting choices. This novel is a series of different voices, documents, and narratives that tell of “The Ogre,” Abel Tiffauges, who begins the novel in France of 1938 as a school boy in love, but grows physically and metaphorically into a violent ogre of World War II.
The novel is broken into several sections, and the effect of these different sections is to shape the novel one way for the first third, shift in the middle, and provide a strange and uncomfortable balance in the final section.
We begin with 130 pages of the “Sinister Writings” of the “Ogre” while he goes from a schoolboy to a child rapist. These section remind me wholly of the strange criminal character in Robert Musil’s The Man without Quality and what we find is that as Abel (The Ogre) slowly begins to create his version of the world in his head, his earnest politics of his youth give way to an apolitical construction of psychopathy to fit his desires. As this section ends, we find Abel arrested and on trial for the rape and murder of children, and in the run-up to the German invasion of France, he is released into the army in order to not waste resources on his trial. From there he is captured and then employed by the invading Nazi force, within which he finds a sense of place in the world. The novel continues from there in a blend of the “Sinister Writings” and a third person narration to close out the novel and the war. The narrative itself is more of a psychological profile than a narrative, though it’s also a narrative, and so don’t go looking for a strong clear plot. Instead, imagine the skeleton of an epic clearly knitted through with a fully realized and deeply disturbing character.