Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101
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 Genesis to suit his beliefs. Nevertheless, it is the memory of his school friend, Nestor, that convinces Abel of his unique fate and place in society. Nestor was the obese child tyrant at the boarding school where Abel was reared. Of the many adventures on which Abel reflects, the central one is when Nestor carries the already oversized young Abel on his shoulders in a schoolyard game of horse and rider, defeating all the other boys combined. From then on, their bond is sealed. On a brief furlough at home awaiting the school’s disciplinary action, young Abel has the fervent wish that the school should burn down. It does, and Nestor coincidentally perishes in the blaze. Awaiting trial years later for rape, Abel’s destiny once more causes an incendiary outbreak, the beginning of World War II. Abel is instantly released and conscripted into the army, where his adult adventures begin.
Abel’s freedom paradoxically increases immeasurably amid the constrictions of army life. Assigned to the communications sector, he is soon roaming the French countryside requisitioning pigeons for army communications. Captured by the Germans in the first series of engagements, Abel is sent with his fellow prisoners east to the bleak plains of East Prussia. Here as well, paradox is at work, and Abel’s freedom actually increases. While his fellow prisoners toil miserably, Abel enjoys unofficial leaves in a deserted hunting lodge and entertains the visits of a blind elk (as oversized and misshapen as Abel). A forester discovers Abel, and before long, he is transferred to the service of the grand ogre of the region, Field Marshall Hermann Goering, at Goering’s mythically inspired hunting lodge and domain. In Goering’s service, Abel feels the strange atavistic pull that was at the center of Nazism, though at the lodge the prize is the stag hunt and the genetic experiments are on animals.
Through another twist, Abel is transferred at last to a Nazi elite youth training center, housed in an elaborate medieval castle. Here the SS commander, Stefan Raufeisen, trains the youths to be Nazi soldiers with the help of the titular head of the establishment and ancestral heir to the castle, the General Count von Kaltenborn. At first, Abel is in charge of provisions for the boys, who are between sixteen and eighteen years old. When the boys are mobilized and sent to the front, Abel quickly becomes the provider of young boys to replace those departed. In this role, mounted on his horse Bluebeard, Abel becomes the feared Ogre of Kaltenborn, the incarnation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Erl-King, who in the poem of that title steals young children away from their parents. Yet once again, because the reader is privy to Abel’s thoughts, there is a strange sympathy for his seeking out and subsequent attachment to these boys.
As the war moves toward its bloody conclusion, the leaders leave for the front, and Abel is left in charge of the castle. With the youths armed to defend the homeland, Abel, as it were, discovers for the first time the horrors of war. Various weapons backfire and explode, killing some of his young charges, and Abel receives a baptism of blood. He also discovers a young Jewish boy left for dead by soldiers leading a forced march from the death camps to the interior. The star-bearing child, Ephraim, is nursed back to health by Abel and in turn educates the protagonist about the dark underside of the war and the camp at Auschwitz. The book ends as the Russians overrun the castle of Kaltenborn. Abel fulfills his destiny as “astrophore,” or star-bearer, by carrying the star-child away from the castle on his shoulders. When the reader last sees Abel, he is sinking into the alder marshes while gazing up at Ephraim.