There is always something almost-recognisable and yet at once unnervingly imprecise about the world of a Philippe Claudel novel; something that makes a reader feel as though he is somewhere real, but not in place with particularity. We don't know its name, we don't know the language spoken, we don't know which precisely is the war that has been ravaging the country across the sea, but it's no great challenge to map it on to any number of potential realities.
Monsieur Linh and His Child is Claudel's third book in English, after Grey Souls and Brodeck's Report, which last year won the the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This time we enter his world in the company of an elderly man, emerging from the wreckage of a war. He appears in the opening paragraph standing on the afterdeck of a ship, holding a weeks-old baby and a battered suitcase, waiting to dock in a new country, a haven from the devastation of his homeland.
The baby is his granddaughter, child to his son and daughter-in-law, both killed in the conflict. Monsieur Linh himself would have given up were it not for little Sang diû – but he must stay alive in order to protect her. The ship arrives, Monsieur Linh is taken in and given a bed in a dormitory inhabited by other recent arrivals. His fellow refugees mock him for the way he looks after the little girl (he sings her his song, and does what he remembers his wife having done with their son), but at least he has the bed, he has food. He is bewildered and fearful, but he is safe.
Then, wandering his new neighbourhood, Monsieur Linh meets a big, fat man, who introduces himself as Monsieur Bark; they become firm friends, even though they don't understand each other's language. They communicate through gestures, through exchanged photos of their late wives. And yet both are happy with their friendship. So when Monsieur Linh – still clasping the little girl – is taken away from his dorm and placed in a big institution on the other side of the city, issued with two pairs of pyjamas and a blue dressing-gown, his main concern is how to find his way back to his new friend. And then there is a twist, and then there is another twist, both pretty breathtaking (and genuinely unexpected) - but I'll say no more.
Monsieur Linh's story crystallises the experience of being isolated among the mysteries of a place where you have lately arrived, of losing yourself in a dreary mist of loneliness, with little hope of escape, only to find a friend. It is a fable, almost, short and crisp, and its very simplicity is incredibly potent. Euan Cameron's translation manages to maintain that simplicity, that cleanness of prose, immediate and present-tense, while still being resonant and moving. Like all good fables, it conveys the sense of a greater significance beyond itself.
Daniel Hahn is interim co-director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Norwich