I found out rather late that this weekend would be a mini-readathon of Persephone books, but I have a few unread ones on my shelf, so couldn’t resist joining in. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski is reasonably short, and I had enjoyed my other foray into Laski’s work The Victorian Chaise-Longue, so I had a nice lie-in on Saturday (which hasn’t happened in ages) and devoured almost half of it, to be followed by more of the same on Sunday morning.
It is a very simple story of the search for a missing child: Hilary Wainwright had to leave his wife and child behind in France during the war. His wife died and his two-year old son disappeared, so he is now trying to retrace him. Pierre, a former resistance fighter who knew his wife, helps piece together the probable escape route for the child and they trace him (or a boy who corresponds closely to their reconstructed story) to an orphanage in the north of France. Hilary goes there to meet the boy, and decide if he is his son and therefore worthy of being rescued.
This book was written soon after the end of the Second World War and it’s a candid, uncomfortable portrait of a world that has been reduced to rubble both literally and metaphorically. The contrast between the relatively shielded world of England and the devastation of most of continental Europe is stark. The nephews and nieces pouting under the Christmas tree because their presents were not exactly what they expected are the counterpoint of the little boy Jean and his pathetic little collection of ‘treasures’: a pine cone, a marble with all its colour rubbed away and a headless swan.
Laski is extremely good at observing a certain class of Englishman and their romanticised notions of France. They suffer to see France in ruins because of what they have lost, as much as for the sake of the inhabitants.
Yet where those ruins now stood, the people who were part of the nation he regarded as the most civilised in the world had led full satisfactory lives, eating with informed pleasure, arguing with informed logic, strolling up and down in the warm summer evenings, sitting at cafes and watching the promenade pass by… It seemed to Hilary that bomb damage in a French town was a greater tragedy than elsewhere because here the way of life destroyed was in complete antithesis to all that bombs were trying to achieve.
Good though she is at depicting the self-centredness of this type of Englishman abroad, Laski is also unsparing in her depiction of a country that has had to suffer the humiliation of conquest, where people have had to make choices about collaborating with their invaders or resisting. She raises the question: ‘What would you have done under the circumstances?’ Given that Hilary cannot resist the lure of the black market at his hotel in France in order to get better dinners and coffee, even though he knows it is morally wrong and depriving the poorer people of food, I suspect the answer is: ‘Chosen the easy route.’
The receptionist who so politely gave me my fiche to fill in – had he performed the same service for Germans, bowing without a trace of hate on his face, without hate even in his heart? Is it even possible that it is I, not the German, whom he hates?
He burst out to Pierre as soon as the porter had put down the bag and closed the door, ‘Don’t you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Pierre promptly, ‘but automatically now and without caring about the answer. I’m tired with “collaborationist” as a term of abuse; we each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.’
The orphan boy Jean is so appealing that my maternal instincts were instantly aroused. I would have wrapped him up in something warm without a second thought and taken him home with me. But Hilary is careful and cautious and wants to make sure not only that this is indeed his son, but that he is still capable of loving someone and of being loved. In actual fact, he is far more of the lost boy of the title than the thin little waif Jean… but dearie me, is it hard to empathise with him! I could barely resist the impulse to say: you are a grown-up, you haven’t gone through half of the hardships this child has had to endure, just get over yourself and show some compassion!
I cannot recommend this book highly enough: it has both heart and a very analytical mind. One of the best Persephones I’ve read yet, a window into the post-war world that should give those hankering after the ‘glory days’ pause for thought.