In Monsieur Le Commandant, writer Paul-Jean Husson writes a letter in Occupied France to a local high-ranking German officer stationed in his town. In the letter, Paul-Jean talks of his life just before and during the Second World War and devotes many pages to describing his struggling love for his son’s wife, German film star Ilse. The twist in this novel is that Paul-Jean isn’t writing to protect himself or plead for anyone’s soul, but to justify what he feels is an inexcusable hesitation and delay in outing a Jew. The letter begins with Paul-Jean relating how Ilse came into his life, after marrying his son and moving to France to set up a life. What follows are a set of tragic circumstances, including accidental death, family breakdown and Alzheimer’s as well as all of the disruption and death that the coming of the Second World War brings.
I found this to be a very powerful book – Paul-Jean claims to wholly approve of, and actively encourages, the capture of Jews in France and their removal to concentration camps. He voices some strong and abhorrent opinions which are pretty challenging. There are several episodes which I found hard to stomach, particularly a scene involving the torture of a young couple involved in the Resistance which I could barely stand to read. It’s one of those books that you don’t really ‘enjoy’ reading as such – that isn’t its purpose. It makes you feel uncomfortable as some of the views and actions of those involved are discomfiting. You are meant to be judging Paul-Jean and rightly so. There was part of me that didn’t want to be seen reading this book – I was sitting on the bus trying to hide the pages from people’s eyes, afraid that people would be horrified by what I was reading, this terrible testimony on one man’s vehement anti-semitism.
I know I’m just being naive, hoping for a better, more honourable ending for the characters but I was a little disappointed that after the letter ends, there is a summary of what happened to each of the characters. While I was reading Paul-Jean’s letter, I liked the ambiguity, wondering if his vehemence towards the Jews was real or a cover for protecting his daughter-in-law from being revealed to be a Jew. I didn’t want to know what happened – in some ways it would have been better to be left wondering about the characters. There are so many untold stories from the Second World War, so many people who disappeared that it seems fairer to let some of them survive with their dignity intact.
I find it really hard to read about the Holocaust, and I’m starting to feel like I have exhausted that period in history in my reading. I genuinely find it really hard-going and difficult to deal with – Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was a particular example which had a profound effect on me (which I covered in my list of Tearjerkers), and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak too. Monsieur Le Commandant is not an easy read and won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think it is important to read books that challenge you and take you out of your comfort zone – that’s what is so powerful about literature. It can transport you to a different place and time, and open your eyes to some of the joys and, in this case, the horrors of human nature. If you’re interested in reading more about fiction that makes you uncomfortable, there is a great post on Confronting vs Comforting Fiction on the Savidge Reads blog (which I noted has Monsieur Le Commandant featured in a photo of several confronting books).
I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher, Gallic Books. For further reading on Slocombe’s novel, there’s an interview with the author on Gallic Books’ website, where he discusses his inspiration for the novel and the project he was involved in. Gallic Books have sent me another couple of books for review The Foundling Boy and The People in the Photo. The former is out in December and the latter isn’t out until next year (so I will wait a while before reading and reviewing that one). Gallic Books have sent me several books so far and I have enjoyed them all in different ways so I’m looking forward to reading these.