Alexis Ragougneau ‘Niels’

THE CLERK. – So lets fill it out together. first off; “Did you ever denounce anyone during the occupation?
RASMUSSEN. – What sort of denonciation?
THE CLERK. – Did you ever denounce a Frenchman to the Germans?
THE CLERK. – Good Frenchmen to bad Frenchmen?
RASMUSSEN. – What do you mean by good or bad?
THE CLERK. – It’s quite clear. Resistants to collaborators.
RASMUSSEN. – And what about the others then?
THE CLERK. – What others?
RASMUSSEN. – Those that were neither one or the other?
THE CLERK. – I don’t see what you mean.
RASMUSSEN. – It’s quite clear.***

Alexis Ragougneau’s first novel not directly in the crime genre, Niels, was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, Ragougneau writes for the theatre and this novel lets him explore the world of the theatre in Paris during and just after the occupation. Rasmussen, who had worked with his friend, Jean-François Canonnier producing plays in the Olivier theatre in Paris before the war, and is now a Danish resistant receives a letter the day of the German capitulation telling him Cannonier is to be judged for collaboration.

As Rasmussen returns to Paris to try to understand what had happened during the war years, he brings an outsider’s view to proceedings. The opening quote tells us of his visit to the “Front national du théatre, La Scène française” set up to purge the world of theatre after the war and of the polarisation of society, you were either one of us or one of them.

Rasmussen discovers that in this polarised world, it is the victors that write history, but that during the occupation, the lines of separation were not clear, hence there was a certain scramble for position in the aftermath and  his friend, finally a smallfry, had little hope of a fair impartial trial, that for writing tracts at the wrong time, when others had already turned their vests, he now risks his life. as the following exchange between Rasmussen and Cannonier’s lawyer tells us:

– And Jean-François? What are his chances?
-Difficult to say. The President who is judging him held the same position under Vichy.
– That should help him shouldn’t it?
– You must be joking! former Vichy magistrates only have one idea in head, to establish an unquestionable reputation by condemning as many collaborators as they can. As for the jurors, the have to have shown their nationalist fervour, that’s to say they are either resistants or victims of the occupation.***

Ragougneau criticises the famous actors and producers of the period, explaining that in the social events organised to promote the world of the theatre and the cinema, the exact same people are present during the occupation as after, with the exception of the Germans. He also takes a shot at a holy cow, Louis Jouvet, the great man of pre-war theatre who from 1941 to 1945 took his troop on a tour of South America, should he have remained and resisted?

Mr. the great actor goes off with the Marshal’s subventions and comes back to the General’s benediction.***

This is a complete novel, far more complex than I have been able to show here and worth a read, not yet available in English.

First Published in French as “Niels” by Viviane Hamy in 2017
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

LE GREFFIER. – Alors nous le remplirons ensemble. Primo: “Avez-vous fais des dénonciations pendant l’occupation?”
RASMUSSEN. – Quel genre de dénonciations?
LE GREFFIER. – Avez-vous dénoncé des Français aux Allemands?
LE GREFFIER. – Des bons Français aux mauvais Français?
RASMUSSEN. – Qu’est-ce que vous appelez bon ou mauvais?
LE GREFFIER. – C’est pourtant clair. Les résistants contre les collabos.
RASMUSSEN. – Et les autres, alors?
LE GREFFIER. – Quels autres?
RASMUSSEN. – Ceux qui n’étaient ni l’un ni l’autre?
LE GREFFIER. – Je ne vois pas de quoi vous parlez.
RASMUSSEN. -C’est pourtant clair.

– Et Jean-François? Quelles sont ses chances à lui?
-Dificile à dire. Le président qui le jugera était déjà en place sous Vichy.
– Cela devrait jouer en sa faveur, non?
– Vous plaisantez! les magistrats vichystes ont pour principal souci de se refaire une virginité en condamnant du collabo à la louche. Quant aux jurés, ils doivent avoir fait la preuve de leurs sentiments nationaux, c’est-à-dire qu’ils sont soit résistants soit victimes de l’occupation.

Monsieur le grand acteur s’en va avec les subventions du Maréchal, puis s’en revient avec la bénédiction du Général.

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