Gallic Books kindly offered to send me a review copy of Monsieur Le Commandant – the cover got me straight away. A beautiful graphic font, not too busy, and a French stamp mingled with a Nazi eagle in the corner – something that becomes more and more poignant and chilling as you make your way through the novel.
Paul-Jean Husson is a French academic and hero of World War I, where he lost an arm and was awarded for his bravery in fighting against the Germans. One day in 1942, during the German Occupation of France, he decides to write a letter to the senior SS officer, le commandant, in his hometown of Ardigny. This book is that letter. In it, he tells a potted version of his life story and emphasises his undying commitment to the glory and success of France as a nation, and of its people. He believes in patriotism and strength, in conquering your enemies and taking pride in your domination of weakness.
The style of writing reminded me greatly of both Thomas Mann and Hans Fallada – though I cannot know if that is entirely the author or partly the translator. Either way it was measured and calm, whilst still being sufficiently dramatic and with plenty of emotional depth and character. This fictional story set in real historical events feels utterly true, and the characters entirely believable as real people. There were probably many like them.
Husson is a dedicated follower of Marechal Petain, the Premier of France and later Prime Minister of Vichy France during the war, who recommends an armistice between France and Germany that is viewed by Britain as highly dangerous and would undermine Britain’s position on the continent. Husson is a highly respected writer and member of local government who has friends in high places; as the novel goes on he becomes more and more involved in the politics of France at war, and as France is bombed, attacked, and occupied, he comes to the opinion that the French people should work with the invading Germans to create a greater, stronger Europe. Like his idol Petain he supports an armistice between the two countries, and he does not believe that Britain and the rest of the Allies have France’s best interests at heart.
Paul-Jean’s son Olivier marries a young German, Ilse, who soon comes to live in France. They have two children over the course of the novel, and for a while Olivier is sent away to fight. Ilse and their first child Hermione often come to stay with Paul-Jean and his wife Marguerite, Olivier’s mother, and his sister Jeanne. Everything is idyllic, despite the war, as the family enjoy their villa and each other’s company; but Paul-Jean finds himself thinking about his daughter-in-law increasingly often and cannot blame her if she makes an error or does something wrong. He is captivated by her, and wishes that Olivier would stay away longer and she would come visit more often. He expresses his feelings of confusion and guilt to the commandant, unsure of what to do, and hints at ‘what happened next’, creating a sense of dread and fear in the reader. We know from the blurb that this letter is a confession and that he makes ‘a decision that will devastate several lives, including his own.’
This sense of foreboding coupled with Paul-Jean’s deeply felt anti-Semitism and support for Nazi Germany creates a great sense of unease. To deflect suspicion from his family he writes anti-Semitic articles for the press that he copies into his letter to the commandant; they are truly disturbing. From our future perspective, we can also see that his ideals are utterly misguided and doomed to failure, as is his support of the Fuhrer and the invading Germans, and this adds a great feeling of not only sadness but also despair that these things happened and people felt this way. From a British point of view his opinions, and view of the War, are disturbing and unsettling, as well as hard to understand.
Paul-Jean becomes increasingly conflicted about his feelings for Ilse and his feelings for his country and the Germans. His semi-incestuous love for her is intense and illicit, and becomes heightened and more overtly sexual as he spends more time with her when his wife is ill; it is always present in his mind. But which is more important to him – the object of his affection and lust, or the future of France?
There are a few major plot points that I simply cannot give away because they would utterly spoil this book. There are surprises, building fears that come to fruition, and devastating moments when true feelings are revealed. Monsieur Le Commandant is at once fascinating, beguiling, engaging and, as a quote from L’Express on the cover states, terrifying. The intricate complexities of the socio-politics of World War II are carefully examined from a perspective mostly unfamiliar to us Brits, and practically the entire battlefield of human emotions is explored. I was left saddened, shocked and enthralled by this novel, and very highly recommend it.