On Leave by Daniel Anselme

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Three army conscripts spend a few days’ leave in Paris in the winter of 1956, seeking some respite from their part in France’s dirty war in Algeria. Over this short time, the trio – middle-class intellectual Lachaume, Communist sympathiser Vallette and Jack-the-lad Lasteyrie – discover that they are not really welcome back to dip into the lives they left. All certainties have disappeared: for a start they have all seen too much (atrocities are hinted at) ‘over there’, and no-one in Paris understands them anyway. The three only really have each other. In an informative introduction to his translation, David Bellos explains what makes On Leave so unusual: there are almost no comparable treatments of the war which had such an impact on so many – and certainly none written while it was at its height. There is only one memorial to the conflict, and this was only erected as late as 2002: the characters’ attempts to drunkenly create one of their own end in failure. So does everything else: Lachaume’s marriage has disintegrated and his pudgy, privileged friends have furthered their careers while he has toiled in Africa. Vallette sees that the Communists only want to collect signatures on a peace petition rather than do anything useful. Lasteyrie is simply trying to forget what’s going on. A war story with very little war, and a great deal unsaid by the protagonists because they simply can’t be heard, On Leave is a bar-trawl of disappointments, broken relationships and regrets ending with the trio’s return to action in the government’s ongoing – and doomed – bid to keep Algeria French. Algeria was granted independence in 1962 (although this would have seemed exceptionally unlikely when the novel was published five years before) at the urging of arch-nationalist Charles de Gaulle, who realised the war was unwinnable. Lachaume, Vallette and Lasteyrie, like the other conscripts on the midnight train which no-one comes to see off, and which is guarded by military police to stop insurrection by the soldiers themselves, don’t want to go back. But they don’t really want to stay either. De Gaulle was clearly on to something. Anselme fought with the French Resistance in World War II, which is probably why he was too.

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