Claude Roy seems quite a well-known in France (others will have to confirm this for me), producing a variety of fiction or non-fiction; but as far as I can tell The Distant Friend is the only item of his translated into English. This is perhaps a pity, not because I think The Distant Friend is good (I don’t); but because I have my suspicions that other things of his might be better.
Why of all his works has The Distant Friend been published? – Well, it’s about the Second World War; which I’m sure is reason enough. A Jewish boy flees persecution from Nazi Germany, befriends a family in France, finally moves to Argentina, where he becomes a legal expert and famed philosopher, before becoming tragically involved in the machinations of an Argentinian government which is a reflection of the Nazi regime he originally fled from.
OK, so on the face of it, it sounds interesting enough; but the problem with it (the problem with so very, very much modern writing) is this: – the story isn’t told by – or for the most part is it even about – this character: he is only the distant friend; – the story is told by the boy, now grown, from the French family he befriended during the war; so that everything is told at second-hand, and as a contrast to the remarkably uneventful and uninteresting life being lived by the narrator. As he remarks at the end, neatly summing up the issue:
I’m one of the millions of human beings who have been nothing more than spectators en route on the earth. I’ve observed life from a distance. I had a friend, but he was a friend at a distance.
Why authors make this decision is beyond me? But it is particularly perverse in this book, for he has an interesting subject he could write about; the book would even have been more interesting if our ultimate Argentinian were narrating it, reflecting on the tedious and insignificant life of his distant French friend, because his thoughts throughout the narrative (as they appear in dialogue) are by far the more interesting.
And this last is also why I suspect other books by Claude Roy might actually be more interesting, because the occasional ideas put forward by the distant friend, about history in particular, are the best part of the book: and I felt I wanted more of this – more non-fiction – and much much less of dreary fiction.