I’ve read a lot of books set in the Second World War, occasionally narrated by Germans, but I don’t actually think I’ve ever read a book narrated by a character who sincerely believes in the Nazi cause. This book, set in France in 1942, is strange in that not only is the narrator the baddy, but the repellent nature of the book is such that you almost don’t finish it, and yet the ending is what makes the book so very very good.
A letter, supposedly ‘found’ by publishers, written by French writer and war-hero Paul-Jean Husson in 1942 to the SS officer in charge of the region of Northern France where he resides during the occupation, this short but heavy book is really quite a twisted read. There is always that underlying question of why people let the Holocaust happen and in this book and the character of Paul-Jean you can kind of see why-because some people are racist bigots who are so scared of being different, or just being seen to be different, that they will do anything to stop that from happening, including persecuting others and handing them in to save their own skins.
Paul-Jean is proud of being French, proud of being Aryan. When his son turns up with a beautiful German film star wife in the early 1930s, he falls for her blonde good looks and charm. It isn’t until his granddaughter is born and a series of disasters is visited on the family that he begins to suspect the reasons behind her fear of other Germans, and why they have never met her parents.
When the invasion comes, despite Paul-Jean seeing the barbarity of Nazism, and the devastation that is inflicted on the French countryside he welcomes the Nazis as they will wid his beloved France of the things he hates most in the world; Jews, Communists and Freemasons. Pretty much anyone, then, who isn’t him.
Paul-Jean is a pompous, name-dropping buffoon who does well out of a system that celebrates pompous, name-dropping buffoons. He is weak-willed and perverted, and also a bore. Although he has moments of bravery and was certainly so in his youth his main motivation at least by the end of the book-which you MUST finish if you start-is cowardice.
Paul-Jean’s main vein of hatred flows towards the Jews. This book was like reading a piece of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda straight off the press and must have been really really hard to write. Every stereotype, from the hooked nose to the sly nature, is present and incredibly unpleasant with it. After reading a book set during the New Inquisition of Spain and the persecution of the Jews then, reading such anti-semitic sentiments still going four hundred years later was hard, and didn’t give me much hope for the future. This book was only 200 pages long, but felt so much longer as reading Paul-Jean waffle about the great history of the German nation and every part of the war in detail was to be honest very very dull. However, the structure of it is brilliant, unlike other reviews I’ve since read I don’t want to spoiler, all I can say is the ending gave me shivers and kept me up thinking long after I’d finished it.
I’ve read loads of really good French fiction in translation this year, far more than I normally do, and discovering new authors this way has been a real pleasure.