The story is framed by a 1997 trial that brings up painful reminders for the French people.
By ROB STOUT
SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR
"In Our Strange Gardens" by Michel Quint (Riverhead Books, $12.95).
In this autobiographical novella, which was a runaway best seller in France last year, author Michel Quint explores some of the many ambiguities of the French experience during World War II. Contained in its 80 pages is an attempt to fashion a darkly humorous parable as well as a serious meditation on humanity, courage and the identification of one's true enemy.
The story is framed by the 1997 trial of Maurice Papon, a French bureaucrat whose paper-pushing caused the deportation of countless Jews from Vichy France to the death camps. For many non-European readers the name means little, but for the French the Papon trial was an agonizingly long reminder of the Vichy role in the Holocaust and the lengths to which the postwar French government went to cover it up.
Shame: This national shame is echoed in the author's voice when first explaining his father, Andre, who combined the respectable vocation of a schoolteacher with his antics as a part-time clown. "I was ashamed of him, denied him, ignored him, and would have made a present of him to first orphan I could find" Quint writes as if speaking of both his father and France's collaborationist past.
However, it is not until the father's death that an uncle, Gaston, frees him from "the curse of the clown" by telling of his father's true background.
It seems that Andre and Gaston blew up an electrical generator for the French Resistance in 1942. By sheer coincidence, they were later rounded up by the Germans in retaliation and placed in a clay pit with the option of either handing over the guilty party or facing execution.
While the novella's only twist is derived from how they are saved, it comes with the help of Bernd, a humane German guard and a professional clown in civilian life, who offered his prisoners a mix of philosophical musings and distorted clownish faces.
Holocaust: For readers drawing their own parallels, all this may unravel too neatly. As expected, the Holocaust and its restless ghosts are used to the maximum of their emotional potential. The story also strains believability when Andre's clowning is established as a lifelong homage to Bernd and a desire to symbolize the human frailties of the Vichy.
Quint is essentially writing about the moral minefield that is France and its Vichy counterpart. The intimate relationship he has to his subject matter lifts the narrative above some of its obvious faults. In the book's dedication, the reader is cautioned, "It is foolish to see history in terms of black and white." A warning well matched to the book's not-so-surprising denouement.
Unfortunately, its over-sentimentality and reliance on stock emotions causes this otherwise promising story line to lapse into a feel-good tale of estrangement and pride meant more to comfort than to challenge.