In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, a novel about three soldiers on leave from the Algerian War. At that point during the war, only two of its eight years had passed and the full savagery and politically instability that would mark latter years of the conflict had yet to occur. Yet despite the national trauma of the intervening years, On Leave, as translator David Bellos notes in his introduction, is one of the rare literary responses to the war. It is even more remarkable given it received little notice when it was first published, and was then soon forgotten. It now makes its first appearance in English.
The story is simple: three soldiers, comrades and friends, go on leave to Paris for the Christmas holidays. They are friends only because they serve together. The sergeant, Lachaume, is an English teacher with middle-class ambitions. The corporal, Lasteyrie, is a single man more interested in women than anything else. And the infantryman Valette, is a kid Lachaume looks out for. As they try to get some sleep on the ride into Paris, Anselme wastes no time in showing how difficult it is going to be to interact with the civilian world. A World War I veteran finds the men and begins to lecture them on how great a nation France was, especially before World War II, blaming the loss of the colonies on the Americans and the Soviets. The speech is a paean to a past that never was, when French soldiers were at their best. The irony here is the French lost so many soldiers in World War I that, in the last year of the war, the soldiers went mutinying. It’s a comical speech, too, as the old man admits the French have their flaws.
We grumble like hell, nothing is ever good enough for us. But it isn’t true that we’re lazy. We just work faster than other people, and as we’re not the ambitious kind, we take it easy the rest of the time.
None of the men are interested in what he has to say and ignore him for the whole of the journey.
Lachaume, who is the axis of the book, leaves the men, only to find his wife has left him. During his absence she had come to the realization that she did not love him. He waits in her apartment for a few hours hoping he will see her. But it is hopeless, and he ventures out into a Paris that he has little connection to anymore. He meets Thévenin, an old friend and doctor, who is uninterested in hearing about the war. He is more interested in Lachaume’s pending divorce or in complaining how the government’s plan to set doctor’s fees will destroy the French health system. Lachaume sees his friend for what he is:
But the idea that a misfortune of that kind could affect himself in the slightest particular didn’t even cross Thévenin’s mind. The Algerian War was reserved for the under-thirty-twos, just as silicosis was for miners. Thévenin was in no danger in either respect.
The uncomfortable nuisance of the war is used throughout On Leave to show a France that has grown corrupt. Anselme has a large vision of the problems facing France and in his characteristic biting humor pokes fun at the growing consumer culture. He describes the meal Thévenin and Lachaume share:
bq. What he now had beneath his nose was a large wooden platter bearing twenty small pots, each containing a different variety of salted, marinated, or pickled fish, labeled as if they were on display in the Trocadéro aquarium. The Market Greens, on the other hand, consisted of a plate of raw vegetables served unpeeled, so as to give them an authentic touch
Unfortunately, this kind of humor is sparser than it should be. Anselme, though given to humor, is also a communist and he can’t help, despite his relative honesty, showing that idealized French workers are, if not a solution, then at least a way forward. Lachaume goes to Valette’s home for dinner. Valette lives in a predominantly communist working class neighborhood nicknamed the “Little USSR.” The awkwardness here is not one of soldier and civilian, but of Lachaume’s middle-class manners and the working-class realities of Valette’s family. They are welcoming, anything but crude, and serve as an example of an ideal France, especially when the grandmother servers a dinner of French home cooking that everyone loves. Yet Lachaume can’t help but feel uncomfortable. When they were in Algeria the two men were friends, but among family the friendship they have seems distant. There is a subtle poignancy to the relationship that wants to bubble out from his writing.
Instead, the night and the story go wrong with the appearance of Luc Giraud, the neighborhood’s communist party representative. He has a great speaking voice and long ponderous explanations for why the workers are wining against the capitalists. It seems comical at first, but in one of the more unbelievable moments, Lachaume finds his way of speaking comforting, as if he agrees with Giraud. Giraud is no Thévenin and Anselme is at pains to show how important the man is. Still, Anselme is a brave enough author, despite his political sympathies: when the conversation turns to the war, Giraud’s only suggestion is that Lachaume take a petition with him and get some signatures. On hearing this, Valette explodes and goes against the party line, asking how that is going to help 500,000 soldiers who are losing their youth. Giraud has no answer and sulks away. The failure is not the want of conviction, but of action. He is, tellingly, the only civilian who proposes some sort of action to end the war. He is misguided and does not understand the soldiers—few do—but he wants to do something.
The rest of the book follows the men as they wander around Paris looking for something to do before they have to go back to the base. They don’t find much, as if leave were little better than the war itself. Anything short of the war’s end will always keep the men as outcasts. Everything Anselme sees as being wrong with France is summed up by Lachaume in one sentence:
“At the end of the day,” Lachaume said, “the only problem we have to solve is to decide which car we’re going to buy when we come back.”
Despite Bellos’s fine translation, Anselme’s style can occasionally be tedious, which is unfortunate because there are some excellent passages in this otherwise interesting book. Anselme uses a conventional realism to describe events and it fails him when he tries to dramatize some of the joviality the soldiers share together. The other issue that might leave a reader feeling as if Anselme did not fully grasp the complexity of the war is the publication date. Since the book was written during the early part of the war, the events that mark the chaotic period, the fall of the fourth republic, the attempted coup against De Galle, the rise of the paramilitary OAS with its campaign of terror against Algerians, had not yet taken place, so the book seems to have voids in it. Also, because Anselme had only served in the resistance during World War II, it could be argued he doesn’t have much firsthand knowledge of the war. So what comes from the book is more a question of where France is going, instead of what ultimately happened. However, given the paucity of works on the war this is a welcome translation of a lost work.