Marcus Malte’s prize-winning novel The Boy, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan and Tom Roberge, is a story that forces us to consider what it means to be human. Beginning in 1908, the narrative starts, quite simply, with the boy, a wild child from the forests of Southern France who sets out, voiceless and innocent, to discover civilization. As he travels between cities and towns, the boy encounters the best and the worst of the world, from ogres and earthquakes, to love and the joys of music, and finally, to war. Malte’s prose is at once poetic and mysterious, and sometimes harsh as he weaves this poignant tale of the human nature.
In her preface to The Boy, Julie Orringer, bestselling author of How to Breathe Underwater, The Invisible Bridge, and The Flight Portfolio, writes: “As we inhabit [the boy] … there is no way to perceive him as other, only as a version of ourselves, at times compassionate, at times violent, always curious, always seeking comfort and love, a balm for what’s been irrevocably lost.” Read Orringer’s full preface below.
The Boy: A Preface by Julie Orringer
Reading The Swiss Family Robinson recently with my eight-year-old son, I came across a passage—amid the ardent shelter-building, tropical-plant identification, animal-shooting, and campfire cookery of the novel’s first chapters—where our narrator, William, expresses the fear that his family’s new home might be inhabited by savages. The author’s (and translator’s) use of the word seemed to require explanation, or context; I asked my son if he knew what it meant.
“I think he means wild animals,” he said. “Beasts.”
I explained, with some discomfort, that the author was actually referring to people, indigenous to the island, who likely lived as hunters and gatherers, employing technology that had been used for thousands of years, and practicing forms of religion, storytelling, dance, dress, and music-making that would have been unfamiliar, and perhaps even frightening, to Europeans. I explained that the word originated with the Latin silva, meaning wood, and silvatica, out of the woods; from this came the French sauvage, and finally our English savage, with its attendant fear of the unknown, of what might lurk in forests, fierce and untameable and possibly intending to do us harm. But why would a person be called a savage, my son still wanted to know; and what made the Swiss family fear them? Underneath his question I sensed another: What is it that makes us recognize one another as human? And what does it mean to be human in the first place?
This subject was much on my own mind because I’d been reading the book you now hold in your hands: Marcus Malte’s brilliant and disturbing novel The Boy, which poses the same question in a different way. Using a trope familiar to literature, one that has long fascinated and perplexed us—from Romulus and Remus abandoned by their mother and nursed by a she-wolf, to the tale of Victor of Aveyron, the eighteenth-century French boy who was discovered after more than a decade on his own in the wild—Malte envisions a man-child, newly orphaned at fourteen, who has lived all his life in the isolated wilds of southern France, with only his nonverbal mother for company; the story opens in the first decade of the twentieth century, on the verge of one of the greatest upheavals of Western history. Notably, the point of view belongs not to some curious observer but—as in T. C. Boyle’s “Wild Child,” or Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”—to the feral child himself, nameless and languageless. As we inhabit him, as we experience his journey into the populated world, there is no way to perceive him as other, only as a version of ourselves, at times compassionate, at times violent, always curious, always seeking comfort and love, a balm for what’s been irrevocably lost. Moving from wilderness to village, from village to town, and from town to city, this extraordinary character perceives, and thereby reveals, the strangeness of the twentieth-century world.
To see every element of our lives (and yes, these are our lives, with only minor differences)—the things we eat, the way we behave towards animals, the way we house and clothe ourselves, the way we worship, speak, make music, treat our children, medicate ourselves, perform the act of love, and wage war—through the eyes of someone to whom all of this is new, constitutes a reevaluation of everything we take for granted. In what ways are we ridiculous, or compassionate, or divine? In what ways are we beastly? Mona Ozouf, president of the Prix Femina jury that awarded its 2016 honor to The Boy, called it, in my imperfect translation, “a novel about, among other things, the ensavagement of human beings by war, which reminds us that barbarism camps on the borders of the civilized world.”
Marcus Malte himself, speculating in an interview about his reasons for choosing the book’s historical setting, said this: “Until now, I’d always located my novels in our own time; I’d described the contemporary world exhaustively, especially its faults, so maybe I’d arrived at a time when this world, our world, weighed on me too much—when I needed to get away from it, at least in my fiction.” But isn't the story of human ensavagement the story of every time? And isn’t the question of what is barbaric or savage in so-called civilization one we have to face in every era? In our own moment, when acts of racial violence and xenophobia have become the stuff of daily news, don’t we need, more than ever, to be reminded of the value of wordless communication, of immersion in nature, of loving touch, of music-making, of empathy, of literature read aloud by one person to another—as well as of the fact that certain wounds, inflicted deeply enough, can never heal?
The book you’re about to read shines a fierce and necessary light on our world. Read it patiently, if you can—a challenge at times, considering the wild and unexpected turns it takes, and the pleasures that lie around every corner—and discover, or re-discover, what it means to be a member of the human tribe.
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About the Introducer
Julie Orringer is the author of the novel The Invisible Bridge and the award-winning short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater, which was a New York Times Notable Book. She is the winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in Brooklyn.