History, history, everywhere!
Sebastian Faulks brings Paris to life but the romance of his novel is crushed by the thesis, finds Jake Kerridge
304pp, Hutchinson, £20, ebook £9.99
n Sebastian Faulks’s magnificent Great War novel Birdsong (1993), the depictions of the daily horrors of life in the trenches are interspersed with another storyline in which an elderly veteran’s granddaughter decides to find out as much as she can about his experiences. She seems to have been created as a rebuke to those successive generations who had flinched from thinking about the Great War, and in doing so did not just fail to pay due honour to its heroes: they retarded the nation’s collective healing process.
Faulks caught, perhaps even precipitated, a change in the zeitgeist that led to the belated lionisation of the last centenarian Great War veterans, and these days our appetite for the unsanitised realities of conflict seems to have grown insatiable. Still, ignorance of history will always have the appeal that goes with the easy option, and in Paris Echo, Faulks’s 14th novel, we find him blasting away on his whistle from the vantage point of the lifeguard tower, determined to save the rest of us from sinking into the restful depths of collective amnesia.
Faulks wags his finger here at two particular types of historical forgetfulness. There is the wilful kind, adopted by a government or a people who are ashamed of some aspect of their country’s past; and the unwitting kind supposedly practised by the millennial generation, who are so distracted by the many stimulants of the present that they have no head space for history.
The book is narrated by two outsiders finding their feet in Paris, each taking a chapter in turn. One is Tariq, a 19-year-old Moroccan who has smuggled himself into France to escape his boringly comfortable life and lose his virginity to a belle femme; he is whip-smart but so ignorant that he doesn’t know who Charles de Gaulle was, and addicted to pursuits such as watching children’s cartoons.
Faulks has a fair stab at creating a plausible narrative voice for him, but surprisingly, perhaps, fares less successfully with his other narrator, a 31-year-old American academic called Hannah. She is researching the experiences of French women during the German occupation, and is forced to rely on a handful of recent recordings made by the very old, as the almost pathological aversion in France to thinking about the Vichy period is only now abating. But the way she talks about her fascination with hearing voices from the past – “I believed in the impact of previous existences on every day I was alive; in more excited moments I came to think that the membrane of death was semi-permeable” – is too grandiloquent to ring true.
Tariq and Hannah end up as mismatched housemates, and she teaches him the value of knowing about history. Faulks is not writing an op-ed, so he makes room for the argument that some enduring conflicts might end sooner if people were more ignorant of their country’s history, and he does have Hannah eventually claim to see some value in Tariq’s way of living his life: “You have so little baggage. You’re not always making connections… You just ricochet through life like a pinball in a machine. You see things for what they are today. It’s a gift.” But not convincingly enough to make me think that either she or Faulks really believes it.
Faulks is a fine descriptive writer and evokes Paris splendidly, but too often it feels as if he has shoved his two narrators aside in order to favour the reader with his elegant observations direct. There is a moving moment when Tariq goes to the Shoah Memorial in Drancy and finds that he can’t “get any sense of ‘history’ at all”, but decides he must try to dwell on the suffering of the French Jews while he is there: “Not to make an effort would be like making these people die twice over.” That’s beautifully expressed, but so obviously an articulation of the novel’s major theme as to make one hear it in Faulks’ voice rather than Tariq’s.
Some of the most successful passages in the book have a
‘You see things for what they are today. It’s a gift,’ Hannah tells Tariq, unconvincingly
IF WALLS COULD TALKRue La Vieuville in the 18th arrondissement of Paris