Romain Gary killed himself shortly after completing this book, but his final novel is far from a doom-laden tragedy
Book review: The Kites is a beautiful tale of enduring wartime love
Romain Gary was a man of many parts and guises. Born Roman Kacew in 1914, he spent his early years living in Vilnius, Moscow and Warsaw, later moving to the south of France with his mother.
When the Nazis occupied his adopted homeland, he fought back by serving in Britain’s Royal Air Force. After the war, he worked as a diplomat and a filmmaker. However, it was through the written word that he found fame and achieved acclaim. He wrote more than two dozen books in two languages and under several noms de plume, and became the only author to win the once-in-a-lifetime Prix Goncourt twice.
Today, Gary is regarded as one of the most important – and indeed best-loved – French writers of the 20th century. And yet for many anglophone readers, he remains unknown or out of reach. For, with the exception of Promise at Dawn, Gary’s colourful memoir of his eventful life, English translations of his books are either thin on the ground or non-existent.
With luck, all that is about to change. New to Penguin Modern Classics, and appearing in English for the first time, is Gary’s final novel. It seems a strange choice: seldom is an author’s last work classed a late masterpiece and deemed a suitable entry-point to the rest of their oeuvre. But that’s exactly what The Kites represents. Thanks to Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s award-winning translation, we have a book to relish and a sample of a remarkable talent.
Gary dedicated this novel to memory, which is apposite, because its hero is both blessed and cursed with an abnormally good one. When we first meet Ludo, he is almost 10 years old and living with his Uncle Ambrose in a small village in Normandy. Ludo’s teacher warns Ambrose about his nephew’s “excess of memory” – his brain’s capacity for storing a wealth of facts and figures.
Needless to say, this aptitude comes in handy at a later stage in Ludo’s life. For many years, though, being deprived of “the soothing ability to forget” causes his lovelorn self untold anguish. One day in the woods he encounters Lila, a Polish girl from the aristocratic Bronicki family that owns the neighbouring estate. He falls for her, but then, without explanation, she disappears and he is unable to cast her from his mind.
Four years later, they are reunited and reacquainted. Love blooms. At the same time, war looms. Lila’s family packs up and heads for the supposed safety of Poland.
“We probably won’t be back,” Lila’s brother Tad tells a horrified Ludo, “but that’s nothing, because I’m pretty sure that pretty soon millions of men won’t be back anywhere.”
As Ludo loses Lila again, the novel shapes up to be an account of thwarted first love. In actual fact, Ludo has more than one tale to tell. The Kites begins as a tender coming-of-age story filled with young passions and “the naiveties of childhood”. From here, we get a short interlude at the Bronicki chateau on the Baltic Sea in 1939, during which Ludo rekindles his feelings for Lila, comes to blows with his rival Hans and is calmly informed by Count Bronicki that his daughter’s marriage to someone like him, of humble stock, is out of the question.
When Poland is invaded and war is declared, the novel changes direction again. Back in France and cut off from Lila, Ludo is exempted from army service – “apparently I’m a little crazy”, he says – but instead joins a resistance network, despite having “the firing squad look”. He throws himself into his underground duties – forgery, sabotage, facilitating downed Allied pilots – aware that he is playing a dangerous game, yet also a necessary one that will liberate his country and hasten Lila’s return.
Gary’s novel is a beautiful study of enduring love and a thrilling portrayal of wartime bravery. Ludo’s candid, heart-on-sleeve narration is endearing, and we come to share his longing, his fears, and, when Lila goes missing, his desperation.
Ludo is the driving force of the book, and what he does and feels will keep readers turning the pages. But his narrative is illuminated by an array of vividly drawn characters, each of whom leaves an impression. Chief among them is Ludo’s kindly guardian Ambrose, a postman, pacifist and kite-maker – or, in his nephew’s words, “kite master”. All his kites are “little scraps of dreams”; each is named after a famous French figure; some fly as warning signals to Allied forces or contain calls to resist, or notes on the locations of German troops.
We also meet the local restaurant owner devoted to French cuisine and a madam who puts together “a little team” to destabilise the Germans. Count Bronicki steers his family on a reckless course: “No one could ever say for certain whether he was ruined or rich.” Tad, the blunt realist, is the perfect foil to Ludo, the airy dreamer. Potted back-stories tell us where characters came from; brief flash forwards reveal where they end up. Shortly after completing The Kites in 1980, Gary committed suicide. Readers expecting his swansong to be a bitter, doom-laden tragedy will be surprised to discover it is the exact opposite.
There are dark edges, but hope prevails as both characters and kites soar high “in search of the blue yonder”.