Reviewed by Ian Lipke
It’s an unusual opening to say the least. Auguste Duchene, former schoolteacher and proud Frenchman, in Paris in 1944, searching for and finding a missing baby, a German baby, offspring of a senior Nazi. It turns out that Duchene has found a means of survival, for he finds both French and German people who have dropped out of sight.
But this is 1944 and the Resistance pays a visit. A priest is missing and with him has disappeared a cache of weapons, meant for use against the Nazis. Auguste’s daughter Marienne is living openly with a Nazi lieutenant and takes exception to her father’s warning that the German will leave and she will be called to face the wrath of Parisians when the war ends. Now, the Resistance threatens her life if Auguste does not, within forty-eight hours, find both weapons and priest. He cannot refuse.
Having begun his quest, Auguste is called to account for his searching. He is interrogated by Major Faber and allocated the task of finding a missing German soldier. Before long, the Gestapo question him and he is instructed to report to them before advising Major Frank of his findings. This outline is expanded with some careful dialogue with both Germans and Resistance, some fiery interchanges with his daughter, and muted discussion with the missing priest’s housekeeper.
The success of the novel rests with the depiction of Auguste Duchene. That Philippe, a seasoned leader of the Resistance and Armand a murderous thug, are presented as realistic characters has little impact beside the main character, Auguste. That Lucien and Guillaume have agendas of their own means little beside the force of Auguste. Marienne is foolish and could have been left to suffer – except in Auguste Duchene’s universe.
Duchene represents what we hope to believe in when the blizzards of war batter our lives. He holds firm in the face of aggression, and meets inhuman demands with actions that grow out of a creed in which his very soul is steeped. Decency, human dignity, and a sense of right and wrong, of honest and fair dealing, together with an insatiable desire to find things others cannot, are the parameters within which he lives. Close friends fail him but his quick wits keep him safe. Courage, he holds, in the face of extreme danger.
Female characters, such as Duchene’s lover Camille, suffer the effects of the Nazi occupation in diverse ways. Each response is appropriate to its make-up. Marienne is the flighty twenty-two-year-old who cannot forgive her mother for leaving her husband and child to fight in the Spanish Civil war. Camille, aware that the Roman Catholic Auguste feels he cannot forsake his absent wife, remains available for those few times when Auguste requires the warmth of a woman’s body and her strength. The women of Paris show their cruelty with collaborators’ hair being shorn to signify disgrace, just as the Parisian women vented their wrath on the aristocrats caught up in the French Revolution.
This is a satisfying work and can be expected to supply hours of pleasant reading.
By A.W. Hammond
$29.99; 320 pp