Romain Slocombe’s epistolatory novel, Monsieur le Commandant, is the most difficult novel I’ve read in some time. It’s published by Gallic Books whose wonderful feel good The President’s Hat has been top of my list of books to press upon other readers this year. Monsieur le Commandant also deserves a wide audience but for entirely different reasons.
Prefacing Paul-Jean Husson’s confession to the German SS officer to whom his letter is addressed with a publisher’s note explaining how it was found and following it with documents of French collaboration – some real, some imagined – adds a chilling verisimilitude to a novel so powerful that it evokes a visceral response. Husson is an acclaimed writer, a member of the Académie Française. He has an estate in a delightful Normandy village and a house in Paris. A decorated First World War veteran, he is an ardent supporter of Marshal Pétain and has enthusiastically embraced Nazism, welcoming the Occupation as a corrective to what he sees as French decadence. The commandant is a friend, Husson’s chess partner, of whom he is asking a favour: merciful and humane treatment of his daughter-in-law with whom he has become passionately infatuated and whom he has found to be Jewish.
Husson is vain, arrogant, lecherous, snobbish and virulently anti-Semitic. It’s a tribute to both Slocombe and his translator Jesse Browner that he gets under your skin so effectively. His views are utterly repugnant, expressed in nauseating language, but argued in an articulate and educated fashion making them all the more shocking. His actions towards his daughter-in-law are monstrous and therein lies a problem for me. It’s a little too easy to write off as aberrant those prepared to countenance appalling acts when the less palatable truth is that extreme circumstances can make monsters of many of us. That said this is a brave, compelling novel, made all the more so by the knowledge that it was inspired by the story of Slocombe’s mother who hid her Jewish identity from her husband’s family until she died. Given that collaboration is still the great unspoken in France it makes me wonder how it was received there. There’s an interesting interview with Slocombe about why he wrote the book and its background at the Gallic Books website. Well worth a visit.