Clara's Story, by Pierre Péju, trans Euan Cameron

Beauty and the beasts of Europe's bloody past
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The Independent Culture

When philosophers venture into fiction the result is seldom wholly successful. But philosopher Pierre Péju's first novel, The Girl from the Chartreuse, was a small gem. The story of a solitary bookseller, a single mother and a boy of ten whose lives get entangled through a car accident, it was a celebration of literature, and the magic of words. This new book is more ambitious, but equally gripping and thought-provoking.

In 1963, Paul Marleau, a schoolboy of 16 and aspiring artist, arrives in Kehlstein, Germany, to stay with a pen pal. The village, nestled amid wooded slopes with a crystalline lake, seems "outside history, outside time", the image of Romantic Germany. Among its young people, "a sea of blondness", is dark-haired Clara Lafontaine, daughter of the doctor, who "is unlike the others". Their attraction is enhanced by their aspirations - she to become a photographer, he an artist. She takes photos while he sketches. Gradually he learns that the tranquil village hides dark secrets: madness, murder, suicide.

In a series of flashbacks to the war, young Dr Lafontaine and his friend, Lieutenant Moritz, witness the massacre of thousands of Jews in Ukraine. Two children have taken refuge with Moritz, whom he turns over to the murderers instead of saving them, while the good doctor fails to hide a patient and carries the burden of guilt ever after. "My duty was to save lives, not to destroy them."

Years later Moritz goes mad, and kills his own two children, in a re-enactment of a fairy-tale about an ogre. Paul too has a secret: when he was ten his father was murdered in murky circumstances connected with his activities in the Resistance and Algerian war. Paul returns to Paris, but the meeting with Clara has left an indelible mark. They meet again during the events of 1968, but again she escapes: "I can't stay in one place".

Clara becomes a famous photographer, restlessly haunting war zones, and Paul a well-known sculptor. He marries a sunny-tempered girl who soothes his anxieties and "tries every day to teach him happiness", and they live in a remote village reminiscent of Kehlstein. Again the serene landscape is the scene of a past tragedy: during the Occupation, in revenge for the killing of soldiers by the Maquis, the Germans massacre the population of the village.

Paul and Clara meet in various places around the world, always at once attracted to and repelled by each other – just like Germany and France. The book ends in 2037, when Paul is in his nineties and muses about time and memory: "one becomes a champion of loss." Péju weaves his narrative with historical events: the Russian front, the 1968 riots, the Prague Spring. Memorable characters abound, among them Kuntz, "a buccaneer-philosopher", who fathers Clara's only child, and whose provocative disquisitions fascinate and baffle his students.

As in Péju's previous novel, Clara's Story is full of literary allusions, from Raymond Chandler and Conrad (the name Marleau) to Racine and Proust – lost time can never be regained. It is a meditation on art, on evil, on the elusiveness of happiness and the transience of joy. Yet Paul is not unhappy: he keeps humming: "Such is life, such is life, I think about it then I forget", the words of a song. Not the least pleasure of the novel is Péju's elegant lyrical prose, which Euan Cameron perfectly renders into English.

Shusha Guppy's memoir 'A Girl in Paris' has been re-issued by Tauris Parke

Harvill Secker £14.99 (314pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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