Ruminating on history

Sebastian Faulks’s latest novel features an American researcher and a Moroccan teen exploring French complicity in the Holocaust.

THE CHARACTERS in ‘Paris Echo’ together uncover ‘the details of France’s stained past.’ (photo credit: PXHERE)
THE CHARACTERS in ‘Paris Echo’ together uncover ‘the details of France’s stained past.’
(photo credit: PXHERE)
Sebastian Faulks clearly had grand ambitions for his new and somewhat engaging but ultimately enraging novel.
It seems Faulks – the author of many novels, including the acclaimed Birdsong – wanted to ruminate on the importance of historical memory and how it can influence us and simultaneously show us how difficult it has become to engage profoundly with what has come before. His characters have good intentions, but are lost in the minutiae of their own lives; and seem resistant to the thoughtfulness required to allow the past to truly permeate their consciousness in a way that can radically transform them.
In Paris Echo, his heroine, Hannah, is a weary 31-year-old American researcher still distressed by a failed romance that occurred in Paris a decade ago. She has returned to Paris to study the lives of ordinary working-class French women during the German Occupation – expecting to find evidence of heroic valor and selflessness. Instead, she uncovers devastating stories of women more concerned with their own survival, and often eager to cavort with German soldiers in return for food and gifts for themselves and their families. There is little evidence in the transcripts she meticulously reads that any of them had any misgivings about their behavior; they were simply trying to get by. Some of them went so far as to turn in fellow French citizens for being part of the Resistance, whether they were or not, in return for money from the Germans. She meets with a survivor who is still alive and is caught off guard by the woman’s callousness; her confessions regarding acts of revenge she undertook against other women whom she felt scorned her, and her complete lack of awareness or guilt or remorse as to her complicity with the barbarousness of the German machine.
Hannah is also being pursued by Julian Finch, a professor she knew a decade ago when she first came to Paris, who loves her and is patiently waiting for her to return his affection. But she is oblivious to his feelings; lost in the agony of her own past, and believing still that the intimacy she once had can never be duplicated.
Hannah has taken in a lodger named Tariq, who has come to Paris from Morocco to find out anything he can about his long dead mother – who was half-French and born in Paris during the 1950s. He is 19 and presented to us as a genial blank slate of sorts, ignorant of the basic facts of world history. He works in a chicken joint and hears how his Muslim boss and co-workers despise the French but he doesn’t really understand why.
Tariq is smitten with Paris, the women he sees on the Metro intrigue him, as do a whole host of strangers he befriends and listens to. He remembers leaving home a few weeks earlier also smitten by his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, thinking, “How could it be that I’d never noticed before how beautiful I was? More a mix of soul and sexiness. With noble bones.” His innocence is lost in Paris, not through a sexual tryst, which he has yet to experience, but by assisting Hannah in her work.
Alongside Hannah, he uncovers the details of France’s stained past; the antisemitism that still reverberates through the streets that the French pretend not to see; the inadequate plaques and statues commemorating the Jews that seem almost hidden within the Parisian landscape.
The belated admission of president Jacques Chirac about French complicity, which did not happen until 1996; the fact that Maurice Papon was not convicted for crimes against humanity until 1988; the casual ambivalence of the French toward the Germans during the first years of the war when everyone thought they were going to win; the thoughtless mediocrity of the French people during the war, who seemed to swing with the political currents, and then swing back again pretending allegiances to the Allies that years before they had ignored.
Still, Tariq is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the horror the Jews experienced, thinking how horrendous it must have been. “That the people who herded them in and locked them up, then put them on buses, were not Germans with guns and dogs but the gendarmes they saw every day on the street.” When he shares this story with his Muslim buddies at work, they dismiss it and tell him he should worry more about how the French are treating Muslims. They are turned off by his empathy for the Jews.
At a dinner with Julian Finch, Hannah blurts out: “We talk so much about the importance of remembering. Of redeeming the lives of people who have come before. What if it is all pious nonsense? What, really is the difference between the commemoration of an atrocity and the perpetration of a grievance?” We sense that Hannah is just exasperated, but this is just one of many moments when Faulks disappoints us.
Although Hannah and Tariq speak to us in a first-person voice in alternating chapters, something never quite meshes.
Faulks shies away from capturing the cascade of internal chaotic voices that float through any inquiring mind and focuses instead on a tidiness that closes us off to truly feeling his characters’ angst and distress. Or getting to watch them grow.
We see only glimpses of them and feel a sort of repressed silence gain force and hover over his narrative; a silence that seems to seek false comfort and easy resolutions.
Sadly, Hannah and Tariq are quickly forgotten; just like France’s Jews.