Our book today is Michel Tournier’s great, grim 1970 masterpiece, Le roi des Aulnes, translated into English in 1972 by Barbara Bray with the title The Ogre. It was Tournier’s second novel, and it won him the Prix Goncourt and sold with fervor throughout France (even the paperback of the English translation sold well in America). The whole generation of Western writers born around the ’20s (Tournier was born in 1924 and is still alive, composed almost entirely of tobacco and merlot) visited the Second World War when they reached middle age, and the works they produced are generally first rate, rich with mythic overtones. The Ogre is a magnificent example of this sub-set, a deceptively simple tale of a gigantic man-boy named Abel Tiffaugues who’s portrayed as something insightful and quasi-human – with an innocence ripe for warping by the Nazis. Tiffauges has a fascination with children and a reflexive (ironically invoked) desire to protect them, even from such rarefied dangers as literary condescension, as when he finds a co-worker reading Pinnochio:
I picked it up and looked through it, shrinking in advance from the atrocities children’s stories are full of. As if children were dull brutes, dim and insensitive, who can be moved only be fearsome tales, real literary rotgut! Perrault, Lewis Carroll, Busch – sadists with nothing to learn from the divine Marquis.
Tournier’s sharp commentary is buried at varying depths everywhere in the novel, often cloaked in folkloric colors, as when the populace is warned by posters that would have looked natural nailed to trees in the Middle Ages:
BEWARE THE OGRE OF KALTENBORN!
He is after your children. He roves through our country stealing children. If you have any, never forget the Ogre – he never forgets them! Don’t let them go out alone. Teach them to run away and hide if they see a giant on a blue horse with a pack of black hounds. If he comes to see you, don’t yield to his threats, don’t be taken in by his promises. All mothers should be guided by one certainty: if the Ogre takes your child, you will NEVER see him again!
Tiffauges for a long time is suborned into helping the Nazis (the scenes where he realizes his mistake are absolutely shattering, even in English), and he himself can be oddly, unconsciously brutal. But readers are never in any doubt who the real monster in these pages is:
“But why April 19?” asked Tiffauges.
The man looked at him incredulously.
“Don’t you know April 20 is our Fuehrer’s birthday? And every year the German people give him a whole generation of children as a birthday present!” He pointed proudly at the big colored photograph of Hitler scowling down from the wall behind him.
When Tiffauges took the road back again to Rominten the Master of the Hunt, with his shoots and trophies, his feasts of venison and his coprological and phallological science, had dwindled to the rank of a little, imaginary, picturesque ogre out of an old wives’ tale. He was eclipsed now by the other, the ogre of Rastenburg, who demanded of his subjects the exhaustive birthday present of five hundred thousand little girls and five hundred thousand little boys, ten years old, dressed for sacrifice, or in other words naked, out of whose flesh he kneaded his cannon fodder.
Despite its initial burst of popularity and acclaim, The Ogre hasn’t become quite the modern-day classic I’ve always thought it should be considered. Reprints of the Bray translation have been few and far between (there was a recent one I vaguely recall, but nothing in bookstores now), and the book is neither read nor taught today. That’s a shame; as a portrait of monsterhood in all its contradictions, it’s more honest and ultimately far more effective than something like The Kindly Ones from a couple of years ago. Maybe it’s time for a new translation and a bit of hoopla.