This is author Joanna Gruda’s debut novel and it is one hell of a debut - a truly heartfelt story based on the life of her father. Originally released in French under the title L’enfant qui sauvait parler la langue des chiens (roughly “The Child Who Speaks The Language of the Dogs”) it comes to the English speaking world under the title Revolution Baby. It first caught my eye a couple of weeks ago while perusing Europa Editions’ website (and those who read this know I’m a huge fan of the novels from this publisher) and I eagerly awaited it, finally getting a hold of it just about a week ago. What a wonderful story - to me, easily one of the best novels of the year.
The story follows the life of Julek, a Polish boy born in the late 1920s to communist parents. It is told from the perspective of a now old Julek looking back on his tumultuous and highly adventurous life as his parents, due to their clandestine activities, do whatever they can to protect their son from the dangers of their work. Hence, little Julek is forced to live with aunts, uncles and friends - his earliest years in Poland, with a couple who for years he assumes is his real mother and father. His real mother appears and whisks the boy off to Paris, where he is sent to a boarding school run by communists while his actual mother and father continue with their work for the cause. We follow Julek’s life through his earliest years, through the start of World War II, to the end of the war and Paris’s eventual liberation by the allies.
What’s so wonderful about this book is that although the war and the dangers are constantly present, we see the world through young Julek’s eyes. You empathize with him and his constant dislocation, his struggles with making connections and having to abruptly be whisked off to another place, assuming another identity, and having to once again make new friends, new acquaintances, and most especially, try to forge a relationship with his mostly absent mother. Although such a situation would naturally make one assume the story would be weighed down with a certain “heaviness” and sadness, instead the reader is treated to a wonderful, almost lighthearted journey as he grows along beside the boy and his amusing and sometimes funny experiences. However, there is a kind of sadness that hangs over this story and the more you empathize with Julek and his situation, the more you realize how these experiences must have effected him.
Julek, although living the life of a typical young boy, is wise beyond his years and at times he helps his estranged mother with her mission, filling him with a sense of pride that he, too, is part of the resistance, especially during the German occupation of Paris. While the reader fully gets that his mother is doing whatever she can to protect her son from the horrors of the war, you feel for Julek as he tries to make sense of what is going on around him, although his “presence of mind” allows him to sometimes understand as he is dislocated again and again and again. One can’t help trying to imagine oneself in Julek’s position. He sees the world around him as a young boy would - his perceptions, his fantasies, his games, his struggles with the normal things a growing young boy struggles with and this is what gives the novel such a sense of innocence although the reader, knowing the history full well, knows that the times in which he is growing up is hardly “innocent”. It’s always looming in the background, giving the story a heightened sense of suspense throughout. Most importantly, to my mind, what this story also reveals, more than anything else, is how there are incredible stories out there that most people would never know about, much less read in a novel. The stories of those who experienced such things as a child, the “invisible” stories that most of us never realize could be told, how one just never knows the fascinating tales that can emerge from a single person’s life.
The book’s flap suggests that those who enjoyed the film Life is Beautiful would find immense joy in reading this novel. I agree and I can absolutely see why. Not that there are any major similarities in the story but both creative sensibilities are very similar, which is what makes this novel a must read. It is, without a doubt, one of those novels that is a stark reminder of there are literally billions of stories to tell, and one’s actual life can be the stuff of great literature. This is one that will remain with you a very long time after reading it. Highly recommended.