A Dog Story You’ve Never Read Before
A dog with no collar has been howling for two days outside the jail in a little French village. Young Jacques Morlac, though considered a hero of the Great War, has been imprisoned for an offense that mysteriously involves the dog, a crime that happened during the Bastille Day parade for which he could be executed.
The Red Collar by Jean-Christophe Rufin is a superbly crafted little gem that does everything a novel can do in less than 150 pages. Thrillingly paced, the story follows a 30-year-old military investigator who is on his last case before returning to his wife and two children. Formerly a young idealist, now hardened by the war, Major Lantier finds himself in a village where everyone loves the imprisoned young man. Morlac was a conscripted country bumpkin who learned to read, found his salvation in books and became a hero who led a decisive charge before committing an outrage to the nation. Now his life depends on the investigator’s report.
Lantier tries to stop the 28-year-old defendant from going to his death, but the hopelessly sincere Morlac refuses to lie to defend himself. His honesty and the growing involvement of the investigator build together with the secret of the dog and the complications of a girl raising a fatherless three-year-old in a small nearby village into two brilliantly executed plot turns. They are jaw-dropper moments in which the reader learns just exactly how Morlac became a hero and just exactly what happened on the day of the parade. Jean-Christophe Rufin (The Dream Maker) then concludes his tale with a final stroke of genius.
With the intensity of a tightly wound theater piece, the entire plot is carried on the shoulders of three good people and a dog, Wilhelm. Named after the Kaiser, the dog has stayed with Morlac for the entirety of the war, and yet Morlac shows no emotion toward Wilhelm. Neither does he show feelings toward his former sweetheart, Valentine, daughter of a German Jew, who knows more about Morlac than she tells, and whose house in the woods, with its wall of books, provides a hideout for political runaways.
In an epilogue, the author admits that the germ of this story is true, told to him by a photographer friend stranded with him in Jordan during the Arab Spring. The book’s achievement is only more admirable because, besides being a novelist, Rufin is also a doctor and one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders. It’s a lucky reader who gets to experience the power of The Red Collar, to become caught in this devilishly tricky moral trap about human beings who try to do the right thing in the time of war.
The Red Collar by Jean-Christophe Rufin, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter (Europa Editions, $15 trade paper, 9781609452735, July 21, 2015)