(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Ogre may be one of the most disturbing books ever written. It follows a simple-minded man into the heart of the Jewish Holocaust and dramatizes his confusion so thoroughly that the reader may find it impossible to escape. By the time Abel Tiffauges realizes the terrible extent of his predicament, he is lost—and the reader is lost with him. This accomplishment accounts for the book’s reputation as Tournier’s most powerful novel but also explains the dismay it has caused.

As a sickly child, Abel was placed by his parents in a foster home called St. Christopher’s. By the time the reader meets him as an adult, he has developed into a strong but emotionally underdeveloped mechanic whose interests in children and photography are easily misinterpreted. When a young girl incorrectly identifies him as a molester, he is arrested, but he escapes prosecution because France is mobilizing for war. He eventually finds himself working with carrier pigeons in the French army but is captured by the Germans and assigned to a labor camp.

Abel comes to love wartime Germany, a nation whose many rules and regulations leave no room for the troubling ambiguity of civilian life in France. From ditch digger he is promoted to driver and eventually to gamekeeper on Field Marshal Hermann Göring’s hunting preserve, Rominten. He discerns the elements of a grand plan in everything that has happened to him and is convinced that events, large and small,...

(The entire section is 554 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Michel Tournier’s The Ogre is an unsettling work that relies on a range of narrative strategies to achieve its effects. Notable among these is the alternation between first-and third-person narration. The book opens with the “Sinister Writings” of the protagonist, Abel Tiffauges, a first-person narration, switches in sections 2 through 4 to a nonobjective third person, and in sections 5 and 6 alternates between first and third person. The very opening of the work is intended to shock:January 3, 1938: You’re an ogre, Rachel used to say to me sometimes. An ogre? A fabulous monster emerging from the mists of time? Well, yes, I do think there’s something magical about me, I do think there’s a secret collusion, deep down, connecting what happens to me with what happens in general, and enabling my particular history to bend the course of things in its own direction.

This secret connection between events in the world at large and the workings of Abel’s inner psychology is established through his journal, but then it continues even in the presentation of the third-person narration. This equation of the protagonist’s psyche with the scale of world events makes for an unusual mix of conventional realistic description and fabulation.

Tournier’s Abel is both an avatar of his namesake and a type of his patron saint, Saint Christopher. Misshapen and of gigantic proportions, Abel’s fate will be to search for the most powerful master to serve. As the word “Christopher” comes from “Christ” and phoria (to carry), so Abel will find his vocation in phoria or carrying. As Abel’s strange musings begin, he is trapped in an unsatisfying job as a garage mechanic. He has been judged unfit as a lover by his girlfriend Rachel because he cares too much for his own pleasure. Through Abel’s own words, the reader learns that Abel eats raw meat, washes his head in the toilet, and bellows like an animal to maintain his sense of well-being. His first glimpse of his vocation for phoria comes when he lifts the wounded body of a young boy, Jeannot, who has been injured in the garage. This revelation leads Abel to seek out children whom he may carry and also to his practice of photographing and recording young children. His freedom to follow these instincts seems to come to an end when he is wrongly charged with the rape of a young girl, Martine. Yet here again, his fate acts to determine the course of world events.

While the external account of Abel’s life seems to lead only to grim and rather tawdry experiences, his inner musings are what truly motivate the plot. It is Abel who philosophizes on his vocation of phoria, at the same time rewriting the book of...

(The entire section is 1101 words.)