This is another book that is hard to characterise quickly. It is French, of course, and Romantic – with a view of history that is decidedly Gallic. It is also based around an unrequired love story worthy of South American magic-realism, complete with an eccentric uncle who creates kites out of the highest hopes of France, so that he becomes a postman-celebrity-rebel and Auschwitz survivor. It is also an ironic story, opening with the memorable line: ‘Nowadays, the little museum in Cléry devoted to the works of Ambrose Fleury only a minor tourist attraction’ (p.1). Ambrose is Ludo Fleuro’s uncle; Ludo is the narrator and protagonist of adventures that include a trip to Poland just before the war breaks out, and a daring role in the French Resistance under the noses of the cultured Nazis who dine in France’s famous restaurant Clos Joli.
The idea of a poor boy falling in love with a cold yet alluring (gothic) rich girl draws something from Dicken’s Great Expectations, and like that novel, there is something redemptive about not only Ludo’s survival of his love, but of Lila’s eventual humbling, in this case in the aftermath of the German defeat, when rich women accused of cavorting with Nazis were subject to public shaming and head-shaving. Ludo, who has every reason to turn his back, instinctively comes to Lila’s rescue and looks after her, no matter what. In characterising at least one German officer in sympathetic terms – Lila's German cousin and would-be assassin of Hitler – Gary undermines any simplistic reading of the war. Rather, one feels, there is a nostalgia for the more glamorous times of the pre-war period, when rich men could be socialists, in thought if not in deed, and France could convince itself of the impenetrability of its famous Maginot Line. This nostalgia is not entirely innocent, then, given the tragic events about to unfold; nor can one be certain of what to make of Gary’s treatment of the passionate Lila, whose potentially feminist ambitions are to be famous in one sphere or another, and yet who seems to settle for the role of muse. ‘Love me, Ludo,’ she says, ‘That’s all I deserve. I’ll probably end up being one of those women who’s only good at being loved’ (p.85).
Given the kites, and the high-yet-ironic Romance, Italo Calvino also comes to mind (Baron of the Trees, for example). In The Kites there are Madams who save Jews, and Polish aristocrats who save themselves. Decadence is at the door – and yet, in both Ludo and his uncle, the kite-making Ambrose -- Romain Gary restores French pride by focusing on small rebellions that have lasting, symbolic meanings. Thus the story of the Kite flyer, told by his modest and suffering nephew is worth retelling. And translating, finally, in this colourful edition by Text. It’s a tragic story that lifts the spirits. It is a nostalgic story that doesn’t gloss over the wrongs of France, while still portraying everyday heroes – chefs, and drop-outs, and kite makers who resist in their own way in the bleak period of the 1940s when France was on its knees. 'And there isn't anything better to say than that' -- to let the novelist have the last word.