Saturday, 17 December 2011

Penguin no. 1463: Little Boy Lost
by Marghanita Laski

With these people Hilary felt instantly and happily at home. These people were his friends, his chosen companions.... All these people would, given the opportunity of choice, have the same sort of homes; you could go into a room in Prague or Budapest, Paris or London, and looking round at the pale-painted walls, the heavy woven curtains, the big shabby armchair, the amusing piece of china on the shelf, you would know that this room belonged to a European intellectual of a certain generation, holding certain recognizable views. In each of these rooms the open lightwood bookcases would contain the same books; and, because of this, a whole conversational range of shared interests existed between members of this group as soon as they met together.

It is odd to see this book being described on the back cover, and elsewhere, as the story of a father's search for his son. The words suggest an enthusiasm for finding the missing child which was bewilderingly absent, and implies for the father a credit which he does not deserve. It seems to me important to recognise that Hilary does not search for his son, refuses even to provide a photograph of his younger self to help those who are prepared to search. He closes his mind to the problem of the unknown fate of the small boy, ignores it for as long as he can, and behaves as though the solution to the problem is simply not to think of it. It was fortunate for the child that someone else knew of his disappearance, someone selflessly determined to find him if he was still there to be found.

It was the child's misfortune to be born in France during the war, a few days before the Germans arrived. His Polish mother doesn't survive: she is murdered for sheltering Allied soldiers after Hilary returns to the army, and it is possible that her two year old son shared her fate. Or perhaps the Germans found him and chose not to kill him, giving him instead to a German family to raise. But the possibility remains that she was able to protect him from the Germans, and that he was clandestinely smuggled out of Paris through some untraceable route, and is now somewhere in France, one of many children whose real identities are unknown. Perhaps his fate will never be known with any certainty: he was too young to remember his family, and all those in a position to confirm his whereabouts are now dead. There is some hope that a small child named Jean who has been found living in the impoverished orphanage of a small bombed out village may be the missing boy.

The problem is almost mathematical in its conception, perhaps contrived, but entirely plausible in the circumstances of post-war France. All avenues of research have been exhausted, and this is the only child Hilary will be offered: if he decides that this child is not his son, then he must accept that his son will never be found. He must make a choice, but it is a choice which carries two inherent risks: he may accept a child who is in reality not his son, or he may reject his true son and leave him languishing in the orphanage. Having made the choice, he will have to live with the uncertainty.

At its core, this book appears to be a comment on the attitudes of the left-leaning intellectuals of the time. Hilary seems representative of this class, and through his thoughts and behaviours they are exposed as intolerant and self-obsessed. He is smugly certain of his superiority, and judges others by the narrowest of criteria, based entirely on tastes and opinions, and blind to actions and all they imply in terms of humanity, decency and courage. The essential requirement is to conform; anyone who deviates from the orthodoxy is rejected; anyone perceived to be of lower intelligence than himself is despised. He is very quick to judge others, but does his own behaviour withstand scrutiny? Jean is a child who needs rescuing, a quick-witted and intelligent boy who is living a life deprived of all that is worthwhile, and Hilary is his only hope. It was frustrating to witness him focus entirely on the cost of saving this small boy, to obsess about the risk of rescuing a child he may not have fathered, and to dream of escaping the decision.

It was a book I found difficult to read and to enjoy, partly because of my antipathy for Hilary, and partly because it seemed so contrived. I felt that the author revealed and explained too much, as though she didn't trust the reader to work out anything for themselves. This continues to the very end of the book, when with the final lines she removes the uncertainty which had been the most interesting aspect, and reveals the boy's identity, so that we know whether Hilary has made the correct decision or not. But this information can only be of interest if the paternity is of prime importance, and I was never convinced that it was. The boy deserves saving for himself, irrespective of who his father was. It is the lesson of the book: that in war-ravaged France, people selflessly acted to save the children of strangers.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1835: The Victorian Chaise-Longue

And more favourably reviewed elsewhere:
Savidge Reads
Harriet Devine
Novel Insights


  1. I spent so much of my time reading this book screaming silently at Hilary and wanting to knit mittens that fit for that poor child. It's certainly a story that will stay with me for a very long time though!

  2. Odd, I agreed with you that the story felt contrived but I found it to be compulsively readable. Perhaps because Hilary's bitterness from WWII was refreshing in the face of all the simple heroism I'd seen in many Hollywood movies. He just seemed so spent- almost as if he'd wandered in from a Graham Greene novel- that I was doubting which decision he would make until the end. (Note: I read the Persephone edition and not a Penguin.)

  3. The premise of this just sounds so heartbreaking, but frustrating too. I don't know if I could bear to read it.

  4. Hi Anbolyn,

    I felt frustration both at the character of the father and at the author. I felt it on every page, and the feeling only intensified as the novel progressed. But as Darlene states, it is a book that is difficult to forget. Even though it is fictional, it presumably captures something of the world it portrays, both of the heroism of ordinary individuals, and the innocent victims of the war.

    And Martha,

    I wonder if perhaps she required too much of this character. Certainly she has him affected by his experiences during the war, and yet this seemed only to add another layer to an inherent selfishness, and lack of tolerance.

    When he rejects Pierre after all he has done solely on account of his political views, and when he feels revulsion for the washer woman for her anti-Semitism despite the risks she took on behalf of the children of strangers, and when he recognises that the bitterness he feels for his mother is because she is herself and doesn't conform to his ideal - these are all independent of his war experience; this is him at his core.

    The author impressed me only so far as she could create a character I could feel so much antipathy for. As Darlene implies above, you can spend this novel outraged at this man, and I felt the outrage on every page. I felt as though there were two possible outcomes for this child, and they were both bad.



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