In the murky twi­light of oc­cu­pied France

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Loosley

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

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