A saga of a mute man’s lessons in love and combat in World War I–era France.
The hero of the first novel by Malte to be translated into English is a waif, a lover, and a soldier. But mostly he’s a symbol: His lusty, violent nature is designed to challenge notions of enlightenment in a society that brought us the Marquis de Sade and the Battle of the Somme. We meet him in southern France, of unclear provenance, wandering the countryside after his mother dies. After brief stints being cared for by a farming community and a circus strongman, he crosses paths with Emma, the young and cultured daughter of an esteemed scholar of apples. Cue the forbidden fruit: Though he can’t speak, the boy, dubbed Felix by Emma (after Mendelssohn), develops a friendship with his ersatz sister that soon shifts into relentless sexual experimentation. “Is it just me, or is it stifling in here?” Emma’s father asks, entering the room after one of their assignations, and it’s hard not to feel the same; from forestry to cooking to circuses to churches, practically no metaphor goes unviolated as Malte depicts the pair’s eager thrustings. The prose gets no less purple after Felix is called to war and he becomes more deeply sunk into humanity's violent nature. (Or, as Malte puts it, alas: “His cannon heart, his mortar heart.”) Malte’s satire of bourgeois society and warmongering picks reasonable (if easy) targets, like a callow medical officer who calls war “the highest degree of civilization.” But leaving Felix speechless only cedes the floor to Malte’s overworked prose and dispiriting portrait of Emma, who’s introduced as an intellectual spitfire but degrades into a purveyor of melodramatic love letters. Pacifism and sexual freedom both deserve better.
Another reminder that war is hell, in exceedingly florid prose.