In the murky twilight of occupied France
In his iconoclastic 1974 film Lacombe, Lucien, Louis Malle confronts the bitter realities of French society under German occupation during World War II. It’s 1944. Lacombe is a dullard youth with violent tendencies who has joined the collaboration after having been rejected as a recruit by the Resistance.
An early scene has an officer of the Carlingue, the French equivalent of the Gestapo, opening the morning mail. The letters are full of denunciations of French citizens by French citizens. The secret policeman is resigned to the fact some of the letter-writers denounce themselves.
Denunciation is a constant presence in Alan Furst’s beguiling new novel, A Hero in France, set in occupied France in early 1941. Germany is triumphant in western and central Europe. Britain stands alone, launching RAF raids on Germany and the occupied territories. The US is not yet in the war. Hitler has not yet launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Both these future realities are the subject of speculation among Furst’s characters, bonded in a fledgling Resistance cell operating out of Paris, smuggling downed Allied pilots into Vichy France and eventual return to Britain.
The RAF raids were Winston Churchill’s principal weapon in taking the war directly to the Third Reich. Their impact was not to be dismissed. In November 1940, during the rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Germany, Soviet foreign minister VM Molotov paid an official visit to Berlin.
While in talks in the Wilhelmstrasse with his Nazi counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop, there was an RAF raid and the diplomatic participants retreated to the Foreign Ministry’s air-raid shelters in the cellars. Von Ribbentrop had been lecturing Molotov on the end of the war. Britain, he claimed, was finished. Molotov replied acidly that if Britain was finished, then what were they doing in the cellars?
Furst has taken this reality of early 1941 and spun an intriguing tale around the bravery of a small group of French Resistance fighters who defy the Nazis, at great risk to themselves and their families.
Their leader is Mathieu, an intellectual who is physically formidable, having boxed at university. Beyond this and his relationship with his girlfriend, Joelle, we know very little. But we do understand Mathieu’s politics in a bifurcated French state where the alternative to German occupation is Vichy France, led by the collaborationist Marshal Philippe Petain. Traitor, Mathieu thought, anger rising within him. A traitor with a snow-white moustache that some took as a symbol of his moral purity. Petain was the one who, in the 1930s, claimed that France had been weakened by decadence — too many love affairs, too much wine, rich food and liberal politics. And then, in June of 1940, when the French lost the war, well there you had the reason.
New York-born Furst, who lived for many years in Paris, masters the climate and cultures of wartime Europe, from Poland to the Balkans to France. He writes with authority on what the deprivations of liberty and the harshness of life meant in Nazi-dominated Europe, a place where millions tried to survive day-to-day. His grim Paris is characterised by hunger, cold and scarcity. Tension is present, trust is absent and betrayal is a constant possibility.
On a train out of Paris, Resistance fighter Chantal, helping an escaping British airman, confronts a fellow passenger who asks too many questions. The questioner goes to his suitcase and, astonishingly, brings forth an orange. “This was a remarkable sight, no one in the compartment had seen an orange since before the war.”
The man peels the fruit and “the powerful scent filled the air”. Chantal is not the only one convinced by the orange that the curious fellow passenger is a traitor.
Traitors were not always in the pay of the Germans either. The most famous Gaullist Resistance leader Jean Moulin was likely betrayed by a rival Resistance group, possibly the communists.
As in his previous novels, Furst assembles a convincing cast: from nightclub owners and restaurateurs to murderous informants, ordinary French citizens who assist the Resistance and those who work with the occupation, including certain police detectives.
The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’s masterful 1969 documentary film about occupation, demonstrated the vast chasm between the actual German occupation (1940-44) and the postwar mythology of resistance.
It is in this murky twilight that Furst skilfully places his narrative. His early resisters are heroes; their enemies are deadly but not cardboard. In particular, Inspector Broehm, a Hamburg detective drafted into the Wehrmacht to catch resisters, is a credible character, thoughtful and measured.
Furst has produced another finely crafted espionage novel, in the dangerous dimension of World War II. Here the heroes, and others, move in the shadows, cast by moonlight.
is the author of Machine Rules (2015). His second book, The Quiet Australian, is scheduled for release next year.
German soldiers salute officers at a Paris cafe in 1940