THE INCORRIGIBLE OPTIMISTS CLUB by Jean-Michel Guenassia (Translated from French)
Can you judge a book by it's cover? In this case -I think so yes. The title for a start is captivating, and the photo - so full of sadness and loss, such a contrast to the title. And it is so long - 600 pages, how can anyone write about optimism for 600 pages! So your interest is piqued, immediately. And you open it....first sentence - "A writer is being buried today."
This is a story of friendship and exile, all taking place at the Incorrigible Optimists Club. Set in Paris over the years 1959-1964 against the backdrop of the Algerian war for independence from French rule, the narrator is 12 year old Michel Marin. Like many 12 year olds he is on the edge of childhood and adulthood, starting to ask questions of the world around him and the people in his life. He is going through the usual traumas that 12 year old boys face - parents, girls, his brother, school, annoying teachers and other adults, thinking about his future. He finds himself drawn to a nearby bistro which is the haunt of a number of exiles from the post war countries of the Iron Curtain, all runaways from communist/fascist regimes - Russia, Poland, Hungary, Germany. They have fled, left jobs, wives, children, in some cases a comfortable and privileged life. Paris is the only place they feel at home and, if anything, accepted.
Michel is both an amateur chess player and a photographer. The unifying force of the Optimists Club is chess. Some play brilliantly, others not. But it is the one language these sad, lonely, exiled and philosophical men have in common. Mastering the game of chess lets him into the stories and worlds of these men and how they came to be living in despair and poverty in Paris.. His own world is expanded and horizons broadened as a result. Stories of sadness, betrayal, and what it costs to follow your ideals. Michel is also facing the same issues in his own family with his brother joining the army to fight the Algerian rebels, then committing the ultimate crime of betrayal to the die hard French nationalist movement - desertion.
600 pages is a lot of pages to tell all these stories. But it never drags, the same steady pace is maintained throughout, the writing is magical, it simply never falters. Essentially a coming of age story, but also a documentary of the lives of those torn apart by the political doctrines that so savagely destroyed much of Europe some 70 years ago.