Title: Monsieur le Commandant: A wartime confession.
Author: Romain Slocombe (translated into English by Jesse Browner)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Gallic Books – specialist in translations.
Publication Date: 16th September 2013.
Paperback: 208 pages
Stand alone or Series? Stand alone
Why did I choose to read this book? Belgravia Books has perfected their email marketing as not only did I end up buying a book but I also recieved an early edition of this one for free!
Where to read? The Parlour Room, at Sketch London. This venue mixes the avant garde style of Paris mixed with the comfortable charm of her cafe culture.
Refreshments: Apologies for another book set in France, however, to drink, you need a strong coffee as this story is not for the faint hearted. To accompany indulge in some delcious homemade (shop bought) cake
It is autumn 1942 in Paris, Pétain has assumed the presidency and France is occupied by German forces. In this environment of political collaboration and intrigue, French writer, academic and Nazi sympathiser, Paul-Jean Husson pens a letter to his local SS officer detailing an elaborate and scandalous confession that leads to a tragic conclusion.
The writing style of this novella, being that of a letter, makes the story extremely addictive and engaging. The use of the first person account enables Slocombe to develop the character of Husson and provide the reader with an in-depth and terrifying insight into his mind (and that of certain sectors of French society). In addition, it effectively creates the suspense and fear that infiltrated, so completely, this period of French history.
Husson, the main protagonist and central figure of this entire story is a horrific human being. The covetous relationship he has with his daughter in law, Ilse, which forms the key thread of his letter, is vulgar and at times Slocombe’s frank descriptions of Husson’s feelings are shocking. The letter spans a long period of time as Husson wants to explain the reason behind his ‘confession’. These sections contain justifications for his actions, and the details are illuminating into how collaborationists during the Nazi occupation explained away their behaviours, in particular to the Jewish question.
Throughout the letter, we are also introduced to Husson’s family and the one that stands out is his son Olivier. This is Ilse’s husband who ends up absconding to join the resistance in London thereby leaving his young wife and children to fend for themselves in Paris. At this Husson declares Olivier ‘dead to him,’ a detail that provides him with additional reasoning behind his future actions.
Historically, this was quite obviously a dark period of French social history and Slocombe, born in Paris in the 1950’s to a Jewish mother, much have felt some connection. He has successfully and extremely effectively woven shocking passages of torture and descriptions of the French Gestapo amongst the letter’s pages. These are often unexpected and you’ll find one near the end of the story particularly unpleasant. I was interested to read that this was based on a true story and it was a nice, although sad, addition to have the epilogue of the characters at the end of the book.
Overall, Slocombe has captured the suspense and terror of the period within each page of this novella to create a significant depiction of French collaboration during the Second World War.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10.
- France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944 by Julian Jackson
- Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order by Robert O. Paxton