Childhood innocence trembles in Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s bitter-sweet, wartime novella and international best-seller, Noah’s Child (Atlantic, £7.99,). Six-year-old Joseph is sent by his Belgian parents to live with existentialist priest Father Pons, who hides Jewish boys from the Gestapo inside his Christian orphanage. Schmitt delicately develops Joseph and Father Pons’s father-son bond with enough restrained pathos to convince modern readers jaded by clerical abuse scandals.
Noah’s Child is, in Adriana Hunter’s translation, tense with the foreboding atmosphere characteristic of Holocaust literature. Loss echoes through its pages but Schmitt shields us from the true atrocity of the Shoah through a narrowed focus on Joseph’s inner world and his relationships with Father Pons and his best friend, the “schlemazel”, 15-year-old Rudy. This deliberate limitation on the story’s scope allows Joseph to observe his bleak situation precociously —“Father, stay a Christian, you don’t know how lucky you are” — while keeping the novella firmly within the realm of the compelling yarn.
Most notably used in such books as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the child’s-eye view that enables Schmitt this critical perspective on adult horrors feels fresh and only occasionally trite. Father Pons’s and Joseph’s night-time discussions on Judaism and Christianity are the book’s most striking moments. Playing perfectly on the boundary between adult wisdom and youthful insight, Joseph asks why he should respect religions “if they’re not true”. Father Pons replies: “If you only respect the truth, then you won’t have much to respect.”
On occasion, laconic writing means lesser characters become caricatures. The ugly Madamoiselle Marcelle is constructed through her atheism, chin-hair and repetitive catchphrase “dammit!” Joseph’s parents figure mostly through their absence and we are left guessing about other friends.
Yet the novella regains fullness through astute incidental descriptions. Yiddish diminutives are “a sweet wrapped up in the middle of the word”. The Villa Jaune orphanage nestles “like a giant cat on the top of the hill”, with a pink hall-way for its tongue. The biblical figure Noah becomes “the first collector of human history”. The fourth book in Schmitt’s series about childhood and religion, Noah’s Child captures an innocent, unlikely love enabled through the pain of persecution.