His­tory, his­tory, ev­ery­where!

Se­bas­tian Faulks brings Paris to life but the ro­mance of his novel is crushed by the the­sis, finds Jake Ker­ridge

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

IPARIS ECHO

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

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