Emmanuelle Fournier-Lorentz ‘Villa Royale’


We had no money, as Victor pointed out to me one evening as I moaned about not having a television. “Don’t hold your breath waiting for some in the near future,”..”to begin with, haven’t you noticed that we still don’t have any furniture?”
mother had bought a red plastic table, that was on sale, for the kitchen but we only had one chair. Charles had come across a flowery matress in the street that we used as a sofa on which we ate our breakfast on rainy days.***


This book, a first by this promising author, is my second read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022. Palma, a yound child at the outset is the narrator of this strange story of a family, her mother, Victor, Palma’s younger brother and Charles her older brother. Palma tells us of her earliest memories of looking out of the back window of their car at the asphalt disappearing behind them, much like their childhood. The book begins with the family leaving their house in Rue Chauvelot, Paris and moving to the Reunion Island, in a seemingly hurried manner. This first house move, if a little disorienting, arriving in the tropics, slowly reveals their precarious state of affairs, as Victor notices in the opening quote.

The children are not yet aware of the exact state of their affairs, thinking that as things haven’t worked out that they can just move back home. but of course they hadn’t just moved for a better opportunity as they grow to realise:


Charles continued:
It’s very simple. We’ll go back, mum. Your’ll look for work, Lakushka will look after us, everything will be fine….. To tell the truth, it’s a relief for me.
“And where will we live?”
“Well, Rue Chauvelot.”
My mothers eyes widened.
“We don’t have the house in Rue Chauvelot any more.”
“It’s been sold?” I asked.
I saw mum hesitate.
“It’s been seized”, she answered, her eyes lowered to her cigarette.***


As time goes on they seem to only stay in one place for a few months at a time, their mother always books them into a new school but sometimes they come home and for nearly no reason they throw everything into the car and they’re off again, as Palma later remarks:


Moving three times a year neither effaces our names nor hides our trace. As the car reached the first bare fields surrounding the village, we knew that the act of fleeing with this smell of fresh snow would cling to us. Afterwards it can’t be shaken off.****


As the book advances we learn the reasons for their lifestyle and the effects it has on them, especially on the two boys and was there a reason for their father to commit suicide? An ambitios and original first novel./span>

First Published in french as “Villa Royale” in 2022, by Gallimard
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Nous n’avions pas d’argent, comme me l’avais fait remarquer Victor un soir où je me plaignais de ne pas avoir la télévision. “Ne t’attends pas á ce qu’on ait sitôt.”..”tu n’as pas remarqué? Premièrement, on n’a toujours pas de meubles.”
Ma mère avait acheté en solde une table en plastique rouge pour la cuisine, mais nous n’avions qu’une chaise. Charles avait dégoté dans la rue un matelas à fleurs qui faisait office de canapé sur lequel nous prenions le petit-déjeuner les jours où pleuvait.
“Ensuite, nous n’avons pas de téléphone, ce qui, tu l’as remarqué aussi, ne déplaît à personne.”

Charles à repris:
C’est très simple. On rentre, Maman. Tu chercheras du travail, Lakushka nous garderas, tout ira bien…. À vrai dire, ça me soulage.
— Et où allons-nous vivre?
— Eh bien, rue Chauvelot.
Ma mère à écarquillé les yeux.
— La maison de la rue Chauvelot, on ne l’a plus.
— Elle a été vendue?” ai-je demandé.
J’ai vu l’hésitation de ma mère.
— Elle a été saisie”, a-t-elle répondu, les yeux baissés sur sa cigarette.

Déménager trois fois par an n’éfface ni nos noms, ni notre trace.
Lorsque la voiture a atteint les premiers champs pelés qui entouraient le village, nous savions que la fuite, avec son odeur de neige fraîche, s’accrochait à nous. Ensuite impossible de s’en défaire.

Elsa Marpeau ‘L’âme du fusil’

Quai du Polar 2022: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Book read Number 5

Elsa Marpeau : L’âme du fusil (Gallimard)


I was at home, I’m in my element, with my son, engaged in teaching him about nature, flora and fauna, teaching him the most beautiful subject, the world about us, as it is, the world the cracks beneath your feet, that’s covered with leaves, that’s crossed by streams – not the one we created, heavy, suffocating under layers of concrete and asphalt, the city that smothers you, the city that screeches, the noise of horns, car motors, of people shouting on the pavements, where no one breathes because the true city is underground in the metro.


Philip lives in a small hamlet in the deep in the counryside, he doesn’t work and spends his days waiting for his wife to come home from work and his son Lucas to come home from school, not much to keep him going except the camaraderie with his few friends and most important of all to his eyes, to initiate his reticent adolescent son to the ways of the country in contrast to city life as illustrated in the opening quote. But the arrival of a stranger from the city will change everything. Julien’s city charm will seduce some, Philip for instance and repulse others, mostly his friends.


The arrival of a Parisian in our backwater was far from normal. For him to windup here, either he had relatives in the area, but we would have known, or he was hiding. But from what, from who? I’d made my mind up to find out. To learn how he earned a living, what he was hiding , what he was up to.***


Philip is troubled by Julien at first, wants to understand why he is there and finally invites him to dine with him and his friends, in a hamlet you know your friends your whole life and know everything about them, this is the contrast Elsa Marpeau brings to the story, a contrast that is not particularly flattering for either Philip and his friends or Julien. Guns are of course commonplace in a hunting community and We learn or begin to understand the pull hunting has on Philip.


The parcelling out of land in country towns shows the foolishness of private property – parcels of 1 meter square in size, slicing across your land, belonging sometimes to a bloke living kilometers away…..It’s one of the reasons I like hunting: hunting relies on other laws, other rules, territory extends beyond administrative aberrations – the land isn’t parcelled out, isn’t divided up, the land remains indivisible.***


Julien doesn’t seem to work and wins regularly at poker with the friends after dinner, Lucas warns his father that he has seen Julien cheating but Philip does nothing, basking in the fact that Julien is his friend. But as things begin to go wrong and the book reaches its climax, the worst possible end awaits Philip.

The straightforward life of the country, with its unwritten rules known to all, sometimes harsh, where alpha males still rule comes into collision with the cupidity of city life. Elsa Marpeau has written a subtle story of what initially seems a straightforward no frills community.

First Published in French as “L’Âme du fusil” in 2021 by Gallimard.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le découpage des terres, dans les villes de campagne, révèle l’ineptie de la propriété privée – des parcelles d’un mètre carré de large, striant votre terrain, appartiennent parfois à un gars qui loge à des kilomètres de distance….C’est une des raisons pour lesquelles j’aime la chasse: la chasse, c’est d’autres lois, d’autres règles, des territoires qui s’étendent au-delà des aberrations administratives – la terre ne se parcellise pas, ne se découpe pas, la terre reste indivisible.

L’arrivée d’un Parisien dans notre trou perdu n’avait rien de naturel. Pour qu’il atterrisse ici, c’est soit qu’il y avait de la famille, mais on l’aurait su, soit qu’il se cachait. Mais de quoi, de qui? J’étais fermement décidé à l’apprendre. À savoir comment il gagnait sa vie, ce qu’il venait dissimuler, ce qu’il mijotait.

j’étais chez moi, dans mon domaine, avec mon fils, chargé de lui apprendre la nature, faune et flore, lui apprendre le plus beau des enseignements, le monde autour de nous, le vrai, celui qui craque sous les pieds, qui se couvre de feuilles, qui dévale les cours d’eau – pas celui qu’on a créé, plombé, étouffé sous des couches de béton et d’asphalte, la ville qui t’asphyxie les tripes, la ville qui beugle, brouhahas de klaxons, de moteurs de voiture, de gars qui gueulent sur les trottoirs, où plus personne ne respire parce que la vraie ville citadine est sous terre, dans le métro.

Antoine Bello ‘The Falsifiers’


“What was the plan? asked Magawati dryly.
“The plan was to, one hour exactly before the Sputnik 2 launch, send a press release from TASS to around fifty media outlets announcing that the satellite had onboard a two year old dog called Laïka.”
“Even though the satellite was empty?” asked Youssef, in disbelief.
“Even though the satellite was empty,” repeated Vargas, “What happened?”
***


After a hectic month of November, reading for the Roman de Rochefort and for the Booker Prize, I was having trouble getting back in the saddle so, off to the library and after twenty minutes with Véronique, “I need something easy to read with a certain intrigue”. Away I came with the first of this trilogy by Antoine Bello and, shame on me, I’d never heard of him. He may well be an American author who writes in French, but his main protagonist here is Icelandic, Sliv Dartunghuvet. Sliv, fresh from university is easily recruited by an environmental research company, one of many fronts for a tentacular organisation, the CFR (Consortium de Falsification du Réel). Sliv asks some questions but faced with an absence of answers from his recruiting agent, Gunnar, he turns out to be a trusting fellow:


And what can be said about the motives of CFR? Gunnar talked away normally, without ever revealing anything of importance. Three conversations later, and I had no more idea than the first day. Why did the CFR falsify reality? With what money and on behalf of who?***


Sliv soon learns of some of the older cases the CFR has worked on such as Laïca from the opening quote who never actually existed. Sliv is pulled into the ludic side of the job, working on scenarios that, after examination and correction, the organisation may decide to put into action.

Sliv turns out to be an exceptional creator of scenarios and begins to take more and more risks until he puts the organisations existance at risk and has the unfortunate experience of meeting the Special Ops.

This was a really good book to get back to reading, this first book of the series was written back in 2007 and treats the pre-internet falsification of reality as Dartunghuvet climbs the lower levels of the CFR, waiting to see how the later books take on the whole fake news thing.

First Published in french as “Les falsificateurs” in 2007, by Gallimard *** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—Quel était le plan? demanda Magawati d’une voix sèche.
—Le plan consistait, une heure exactement après le lancement de Spoutnik 2, à envoyer un communiqué de l’agence Tass à une cinquantaine de rédactions annonçant que le satelite emportait à son bord une chienne de deux ans du nom de Laïka.
—Alors que le satellite était vide? demanda Youssef, incredule.
—Alors que le satellite était vide, répéta Vargas. Que se passa-t-il?

Et que dire des mobiles du CFR? Gunnar discourait habituelement, sans jamais rien révéler d’important. Trois conversations plus tard, j’en savais à peine plus qu’au premier jour. Pourquoi le CFR falsifiait-il le réel? Avec quel argent et pour le copte de qui?

Bruno de Strabenrath ‘L’ami impossible’


Right to the end, overwhelmed as he was by so much bad luck, Ligonnès still didn’t give up:  He went  through with, and in a radical manner managed something few people accomplish in their lifetimes; he pushed on the “reset” button. img_0246


This book, my eigth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, revisits a true life event here in France, the unsolved murder by shotgun of a woman and her four children in their home in Nantes and the dissapearance of their husband and father, Xaviet Dupont de Ligonnès. Bruno de Strabenrath, childhood friend of Ligonnès, has written this book shedding light on his background. De Strabenrath believes, as illustrated in the opening quote, that Ligonnès is still alive and hopes by this book to get him to come forward and to give himself up.

De Strabenrath tells of their schooldays in the 1970’s in the “Royal City”, Versailles, of the rich and not so rich catholic monarchists living their, of their meetings with young girls of their own class and how they were aware of this situation:


I’ll have my Signet ring in a fortnight. I only intended to wear it on rare occasions,  and only amongst people of my class and in society events. Rally evenings or debutant balls, in order to display my pedigree on my finger.


The most interesting part of this book is this desription of this time and place growing up together. De Strabenrath also lets us in on Ligonnès’ family background, of his mother and her catholic sect waiting for the overthrow of the Pope:


My mother receives messages from on high, Xavier told me  half smiling. Since 1964 she has her whims, her MLC (Messages of Love and Compassion) and gathers around herself, both in Versailles and on the island of Bréhat close friends that share  her convictions of theology, esoterism and initiation…..a prayer group if you like.


From the murder on, about halfway through the book, the interest aroused by this insider view of Versailles dies away as the two friends become estranged following De Strabenrath’s car accident leaving him wheelchair bound and Ligonnès’ descent into debt as he first dilapidates his wife’s considerable inheritence and borrows continually from his friends until the end. To my way of thinking nothing new here.

First Published in french as “L’Ami impossible” in 2020, by Gallimard *** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Finalement, accablé par tant de malchances, Ligonnès ne s’avoue pas vaincu: il réalise jusqu’au bout et de façon radicale ce que peu d’hommes accomplissent au cours d’une vie; il appuie sur le bouton “reset”

Je disposerais de ma chevalière dans 15 jours. Je comptais la porter lors des rares occasions, dans le cadre exclusif de mon milieu et de ses mondanités. Les soirées de rallyes ou de bal des débutantes , afin d’afficher au doigt mon pedigree.

Ma mère reçoit des messages de là-haut, me disait Xavier dans un demi-sourire. Depuis 1964, elle a ses lubies, ses MAM (Messages d’Amour et de Miséricorde) et réunit autour d’elle à Versailles et sur l’île de Bréhat des proches qui partagent ses convictions théologiques, ésotériques, initiatiques… Un groupe de prière en somme.

Fabrice Caro ‘Broadway’


For Denis’s fortieth birthday, Beatrice organised a surprise party, she thought it would be a good idea to hold it in a Karaoke bar.I suspect Denis and Beatrice rack their heads to try to find activities that are the exact opposite of my desires.***


This was my second book read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, and has left me with mixed sentiments, a lot of work has gone into shaping the story and linking the witty stories together using running jokes. The tone is slightly disenchanted with life, a mid life crisis? But at the same time that is all this book is, a string of witty stories and for this reader I soon lost patience. and no longer appreciated his drollery, I wanted to scream too much! The following quote is an example of Axel wanting to tell his daughter Jade that her boyfriend that has left her just isn’t woth the sorrow. The paragraph in itself is mildly amusing, the blue envelope is one of the running jokes; basically he received a colorectal test kit through the post four years earlier at 46 years old than the 50 years at which the kit is normally sent:


Maybe I should tell her: you know, today you admire him, but one day he’ll change, he’ll put on weight, slowly a fatty layer will appear around his midrift, his hair will recede, he’ll try to limit that by the use of Minoxydil 5% to no avail, you’ll notice CDs from the 90s (even the 80s) in the glove compartment, he’ll tell you its ironic, but it won’t be it’ll just be bad taste, in the evening on the sofahe’ll read car mags and sport pages, now and again he’ll say something about a transfer out loud and you’ll ask yourself if he hasn’t anything better to say to you, you’ll dye your hair and he won’t notice it, you’ll argue with each other more and more for less and less and one day he’ll go for the mailand find a blue envelope….,colorectal blue, that’s what you’re crying over Jade.***


In a nutshell Axel talks about his life, which should be happy, but as the opening quote shows, it’s all about him.

I won’t be voting for this book, much like king John, it died of a surfeit.

First Published in french as “Broadway” in 2020 by Gallimard.*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Pour les quarante ans de Denis, Béatrice lui avait organisé un anniversaire surprise, elle lui avait trouvé judicieux de faire ça dans un bar karaoké – je soupçonne Denis et Béatrice de se creuser la tête pour tenter de ne me proposer que des activités qui sont aux antipodes de mes aspirations.

Peut-être devrais-je dire: tu sais, tu l’admires aujourd’hui, mais un jour il changera, il va prendre du poids, sensiblement, des contours de graisse vont faire leur apparition tout autour de son ventre, son front va commencer à se dégarnir, il essaiera d’enrayer ça avec du Minoxydil 5% mais ce sera peine perdu, tu vas voir apparaitre des CD des années 90 (voire 80) dans sa boîte à gants, il te dira que c’est du seconde degré mais ça n’en sera pas, ce sera juste du mauvais goût, le soir sur le canapé il lira des magazines automobiles et des journaux de sport, de temps à autre il fera un commentaire à haute voix sur un transfert de joueur et tu te demanderas s’il n’a pas autre chose à te dire que ça , tu feras une couleur et il ne remarquera pas que tu as fait une couleur, vos disputes se feront de plus en plus fréquentes, avec de moins en moins d’enjeu et un jour il ira au courrier et y trouvera une enveloppe bleue…, bleue colorectal, voila ce que tu pleurniches ma Jade.

Sébastien Rutés ‘Mictlán’

Quai du Polar 2021: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Number 6

Sébastien Rutés: Mictlán (GALLIMARD)


….he quite simply gives him the wheel, they swap places with difficulty because Fats is fat, and Fats begins to piss out of the window at last, wathing out for sign posts, dogs lift their snouts from the carcass of a dead horse to watch him pass, Fats thinks to hi self that they have petrol for another four hours, maybe less now, he’ll have to wake up now at the next service station, he won’t be able to sleep for twelve straight hours like Old-Timer, that’s how it is, sometimes it happens for one of them, sometimes for the other, they’ve agreed to wake each other up, no one stops this fucking truck by themselves, no one gets down alone, one fills the tank whilst the other hurries to buy something to eat and drink, Fats holding the butt of his weapon, so far they’ve been lucky,……..***


Two men driving a truck full of dead bodies, never stopping, for ever? Mictlán, or the Aztec hell is a fair definition of the first chapter, 39 pages, 4 paragraphs, no full stops. I had read a comment of despair about this before hand and can safely now say I share this despair and have no energy or will to go further. In spite of this I read the second chapter before giving up. This is definitely in sixth place!

First Published in French as “Mictlán” in 2020 by GALLIMARD.
*** My translation

….il lui passe tout simplement le volant, ils échangent leur place difficilement parce que Gros est gros, et Gros se met à la fenêtre pour pisser enfin, en faisant bien attention aux panneaux indicateurs, des chiens sortent leur museau noir d’une carcasse de cheval crevé pour le regarder passer, Gros se dit qu’il reste de l’essence pour quatre heures, peut-être moins maintenant, il va devoir se réveiller à la prochaine station-service, il ne pourra pas dormir ses douze heures d’affilée comme Vieux, c’est comme ça, des fois ça tombe sur l’un et des fois sur l’autre, ils se sont mis d’accord pour se réveiller, personne n’arrête ce putain de camion tout seul, personne n’en descend tout seul, il y en a un qui fait le plein pendant que l’autre se dépêche d’acheter à manger et à boire, Gros la main sur la crosse de son arme, jusqu’ici on a eu de la chance,…

Hervé Le Tellier ‘The Anomaly’


Mayday received Air France 006. Can you confirm the transponder code 7700?
The voice, in which a clear incomprehension can be heard, repeats:
Air France from Kennedy Approach, confirm the transponder is on 7700.
You did say Air France 006?
Affirmitive, Air France 006 mayday. I confirm the transponder is on 7700, we’ve come through a huge hail cloud, the windshield is cracked, the radome is probably damaged….
Air France 006 mayday, from Kennedy Approach. This is Air Traffic Control, what is your captain’s name please?
Markle sits there mouth wide open. No controler in his whole career has ever asked him a pilot’s name.***


This Goncourt winning book asks the question, if I was faced with myself how would I react? Would I welcome my other self ? Would I try to dominate my other self? Or would I try to annihilate my other self?

Air France 006, piloted by captain Markle on one of his last flights before retirement, comes through a momentous storm and carries out an emergency landing on the 10th March 2021. As the book slowly develops we zoom in on a number of people whose only link was to have been on this flight. There is Blake, a meticulous and successful french contract killer. There is Lucie Bogaert a successful film editor who has been slowly courted by the older architect, André, but who after her trip to New York becomes disillusioned with André, at the end of this chapter the police come to fetch her.

There are a number of other characters, notably Victor Miesel an unknown writer who on his return from New York writes a hugely successful book called ‘The Anomaly’ and Fehmi Ahmed Kaduna, alias Slimboy a little known rapper from Lagos who writes a world wide hit, ‘Yaba Girls’ on his return from New York.

And then in June, as illustrated in the opening quote, Air france 006 piloted by captain Markle appears out of nowhere in a clear sky, the same pilot, the same plane and the same passengers, Markle is passed from Air Traffic Control to Special operations FAA then to NORAD and is guided to a secret airforce base for landing.

The strength of the book is not to deal with how or why but to follow the people as they are prepared for and then brought to meet their other selves, and so yes, how will they react? What will they do? For instance Slimboy June hasn’t known the success of Slimboy March. Victor Miesel hasn’t written a successful book and Lucie June is still in love with André. And what about Blake?

This highly enjoyable book explores the worlds of a dozen or so passengers on this flight. And how was the US able to react so quickly when Air France 006 June appeared and what is the protocol 42?

First Published in French as “L’Anomalie” by Gallimard in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Mayday reçu Air France 006. Pouvez-vous confirmer le code transpondeur 7700?
La voix, où l’on décèle une profonde incompréhension, répète:
Air France de Kennedy Approach, confirmez le transpondeur sur 7700. Vous dites bien Air France 006?
Affirme, Air France 006 mayday. Je confirme transpondeur sur 7700, nous avons traversé un gros nuage de grêle, le pare-brise est fissuré, le radôme est sûrement défoncé….
Air France 006 mayday, de Kennedy Approach. Ici Air Traffic Control, quel est le nom du commandant du bord, s’il vous plaît?
Markle reste bouche bée. Jamais de toute sa carrière aucun contrôleur ne lui a demandé le nom d’un pilote.

Sylvain Prudhomme ‘Par Les routes’


What do you think you’re looking for, asked Jeanne turning back towards the hitchhiker. What I want to say is when you do it, why do you do it. You don’t make money from it. It separates you from Marie and Augustin. It takes you several days each time. You come back exhausted. You’re not a reporter, nor a writer or photographer. You don’t want to make a film, or an expo or a novel, at least as far as I know. So why do you do it.***


Sacha moves to a town, V, in the south east of France, the town where his roommate, who he hasn’t seen since university ten year’s earlier, lives. Sacha undertakes to visit him and finds the hitchhiker living happily with Marie and their son Augustin. Sacha and his roommate had hitchhiked in their university days, which were, as Sacha tells us, already well past the golden age of hitchhiking.

The call of the roads is however still there and the hitchhiker we soon learn still leaves his family for days at a time before coming home tired and dirty to the incomprehension of their friends as illustrated by the opening quote. Marie on the other hand seems proud of his freedom. We learn from the discussions between the two men that what drives him to the open road is the encounters he makes with the drivers:


With time the hitchhiker began to regret that the trip’s ended. That his journey should always, inevitably end by separating him from the people he meets. He began asking them if they realised the extraordinary set of circumstances that had lead to their routes crossing.***


As his absences grow longer, the postcards he sends show that his trips take on themes, for instance:


The hitchhiker described his projects. Trips abroad without leaving France: Saint-Benin, Venise, Montréal, Porto, Grenade, Le Désert, Dunes.***


The pride that Marie had for his freedom slowly turns to resentment as it becomes obvious that he doesn’t care for everyday life, has Sacha’s arrival freed him? Knowing, sensing, even maybe expecting Sacha to move in and replace him. One day he asks Sacha to join him for a trip where we better understand the lack of romanticism in his endeavour, sleeping short hours in his little tent, cold in his sleeping bag but always meeting people. Hitchhiking as a means not an end.

First Published in French as “Par les routes” by Gallimard in 2019
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Mais tu penses que tu cherches quoi , a demandé Jeanne en se tournant à nouveau vers l’autostoppeur. Je veux dire quand tu fais ça, tu le fais pour quoi. Ça ne te rapporte pas d’argent. Ça t’éloigne de Marie et d’Augustin. Ça te prend plusieurs jours chaque fois. Tu rentres épuisé. Tu n’es pas reporter, pas écrivain, pas photographe. Tu ne veux pas faire un film, ni une expo, ni un roman, enfin pas que je sache. Tu le fais pour quoi alors.

Avec le temps l’autostoppeur s’est pris à regretter que les trajets se terminent. que sa route doive toujours à la fin inéluctablement, se séparerde celle des gens rencontrés Il s’est mis à leur demander s’ils se rendaient compte. S’ils mesuraient quel extraordinaire concours de circonstances avait permis que leurs routes se croisent.

l’autostoppeur racontait ses projets. Voyages à l’étranger sans quitter la France: Saint-Benin, Venise, Montréal, Porto, Grenade, Le Désert, Dunes.

Pierre Assouline ‘Sigmaringen’


In uniform, obedience is a virtue. It avoids going against authority. There are those that command and those that obey, and not only the Prussians.I know no other master than the prince, no other loyalty than to the Hohenzollern, no other house than the castle.***


As the book begins, in August 1944, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a part of the German aristocracy, are evicted from their 900 year old castle by the Führer at a half days notice to make way for the exiled Vichy government. The prince was able to negotiate that his Major-domo should stay in place with his staff to serve the new inhabitants and to ensure the integrity of this 380 room castle. So begins this very particular version of Upstairs Downstairs related by the Major-domo Julius, described in the opening quote.

Sigmaringen soon fills with the Vichy government, from the president, Marshal Pétain and his prime minister Laval, their ministers and a militia force in the castle overlooking the town, to a thousand or so french civilians in the town itself. Julius shows us through his eyes this pathetic circus, Pétain, who occupies the Prince’s apartments on the seventh floor, realising that he is in fact a prisoner as shown when Cecil Von Renthe-Fink, arrives for a meal with the Marshal, Von Renthe-Fink who had been Pétain’s “guardian angel” in Vichy, as Pétain tells Julius:


Excuse me Marshal, but Mr. Von Renthe-Fink has just arrived, he is in the antechamber. Maybe you know him……Do I know him? He followed me around for two years at the Hôtel du Parc!
Mr. Von Renthe-Fink is here for dinner and…..
I don’t remember having inviting my jailor to dine with us. He will dine alone.***


Laval, who occupies the royal apartments on the sixth floor spends the eight months preparing his defence whilst Julius has to organise the castle so that Pétain and Laval, who cannot stand each other, should never meet.

The ministers as for them, are divided into two clans, the passive and the active clan, the one looking to continue the simulacrum of government and the other planning their escape. Julius must organise things so that these two groups never meet either. And then there was Céline, the famous author of “Voyage au bout de la nuit”, but a confirmed anti-semite.

The upstairs-downstairs view of events is present throughout, with the servants being made up of the original German retinue, interspersed with some of the french exiles. As the allies advance, rumours abound, are their spies present? How will the Germans fight back? An example of two views follows during a conference given by the head of the belgian fascists, Léon Degrellé:


Upstairs:

Mr Degrelle claims to have information on the subject. Secret information, of course, he couldn’t reveal his source. He could only certify that in underground laboratories and hidden factories, brilliant german scientists were putting the final touches to terrifying arms of destruction:
“Vulcans forges! You’ll see! In the meantime, you can already see the devastation reaped by the Panzerfaust, the poor man’s weapon. Do you realise? A 50 Pfennig stovepipe blowing up tanks worth 25 million!
He gloated. His audience refrained from applauding…

Downstairs:

At the end of the evening, once the guests had rejoined their apartments, I lingered in the kitchens as two valets gave their versions of the conferences……imagine, he was on stage with all the chiefs, in the middle of explaining why Germany can’t lose the war, with his “Don’t be afraid to be true French and at the same time Europeans…. Europe will perish or will live on!” and his “It’s a soldier telling you this…. We’ll be the first in Brussels, be the first in Paris… Vive la France!”….
And then Céline, who was in the central aisle, he stopped, he stared him in the eyes, he shrugged his shoulders and then he walked off, he turned his back on him and left saying out loud: “Who is this complete idiot who won’t even look good on the gallows with that fools face?”***


This is also a book about Julius himself. Who is behind the impassive exterior? Can he be coaxed back towards showing his feelings? I felt a glossary of the ministers and their positions would have been an interesting addition for the reader.

First Published in French as “Sigmaringen” by Gallimard in 2014
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sous l’uniforme, obéissance fait vertu. Il évite même de s’opposer à l’authorité. Il y a ceux qui commandent et ceux qui obéissent, ep pas seulement chez les Prussiens. Or je ne me connaissais d’autre maître que le prince, d’autres loyauté que les Hohenzollern, d’aure maison que le château.

Pardon, monsieur le maréchal, mais M. Von Renthe-Fink vient d’arriver, il se trouve dans l’antichambre. Peut-être le connaissez-vous….Si je le connais? Je l’ai eu sur le dos pendant deux ans à l’Hôtel du Parc!
M. Von Renthe-Fink est là pour dîner et…..
Je ne me souviens pas d’avoir invité mon geôlier à notre table. Il dînera seule.

M. (Léon) Degrelle (le chef des fasciste Belges) disait détenir des informations sur le sujet. Des informations secrètes, naturellement, dont il ne pouvait revel la source. Il pouvait juste certifier que dans des laboratoires enfouis sous terre et des usines cachées, le génie scientifique allemand mettait au point de terribles armes de destruction:
“Les forges de Vulcain! Vous verrez! En attendant, voyez déjà les ravages causés par le Panzerfaust, l’arme du pauvre. Vous vous rendez compte? Un tuyau de poêle de 50 Pfennig qui fait sauter des tanks de 25 millions!”
Il exultait. Son public se retenait d’applaudir….

À la fin de la soirée, une fois que les invités eurent regagné leurs appartements, je m’attardai en cuisines car deux valets racontaient leur version de ces conférences…..Imaginer qu’il était à la tribune avec tous les chefs, en train d’expliquer pourquoi l’Allemagne ne pouvait pas perdre la guerre, avec des “N’ayez pas peur d’être des vrais Français tout en étant des Européens… L’Europe périra ou elle vivra!” et des “C’est un soldat qui vous parle…. Nous serons les premiers à Bruxelles, soyez les premiers à Paris….Vive la France!”…..
Alors le Céline, qui était dans l’allée centrale, il s’est arrêté, il l’a regardé fixement dans les yeux, il a haussé les épaules puis il a rebroussé chemin, il lui a tourné le dos et il est reparti en disant très fort: “Quel est ce roi des cons qui ne fera même pas un beau pendu avec sa gueule de jean-foutre?”

Thomas Cantaloube ‘Requiem pour une République’

Quai des Polars 2020: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Number 6

Sites to visit linked to this proud event unfortunately now cancelled.
Emma, Marina-Sofia and the official event site Quai des Polars In order to support this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed thrillers and propose my winner before the official announce on the 4th of April.

In order to reach the largest readership possible for this attempt, I have created a website to publish my six articles and to propose my winner ****in French*** please go to my French website and don’t hesitate to make it viral

Thomas Cantaloube has set this story in the shameful years at the start of France’s Vth republic, The real life shady characters that had been part of Vichy’s pro-nazi government and had avoided the post-war purification in large numbers had been in positions of power since the war and still were in these 1959 to 1961 years in France, represented here by Maurice Papon who as secretary general for the police in Bordeaux during the war had been responsible for the deportation of more than 1600 Jews and was later found guilty of crimes against humanity in 1998. Here as in real life he was in charge of the Paris police with his fictional deputy Jean-Paul Deogratias. The story is told through the converging lives of three characters, a young policeman, Luc Blanchard, an ex-maquisard and small time criminal Antoine Carrega and finally Sirius Volkstrom, French but of partly German ancestry who had made money under the nazis and was now a payed killer:


The paths of Deogratias and Volkstrom had crossed in Nîmes in the autumn of 1940. The first was an unknown paper pusher at the Gard Préfecture, under the orders of one of the most zealous officers of Vichy, the prefect, Angelo Chiappe. Within a few months he had made himself indespensable to the representative of Pétain’s government. He quickly became his right hand responsible for intelligence, raids and deportations….A zeal that he later put to use for other officers of the French state and then for the republic, passing like many others, between the wires of the purification sieve.***


The period had three main tensions, the Algerian war of independance, fought mostly in Algeria but with activity in France organised by the FLN, France which already had a large number of Algerians working in the factories. Any idea of action in Paris was violently surpressed by the Paris Police. The second tension was due to De Gaulle having decided to pull out of Algeria and the attempted putsch by senior generals followed by the more than 2000 killed by the right wing organisation the OAS (l’Organisation de l’Armée secrète) who were against leaving Algeria. The third tension was around the fact that France was testing it’s new atomic bomb in the Algerian desert. (for the anecdote, and part of the story, the fourth and last bomb in the series, Gerboise verte, was exploded hurriedly to avoid it coming into the generals’ hands). Cantaloube captures the moment in this book with everyday events such as rounding up arabs, possibly involved in crimes but with no evidence:


— And you Malek, you know why you’re here? — No sir, the policemen didn’t tell us. — Are you two taking the piss! Blanchard had changed to his “booming voice”, the one his more experienced colleagues had advised him to use when he was questioning Arabs: You’ll see, as soon as you raise your voice and sound annoyed, they’ll tell you everything.***


And finally without going into any details on the specific crimes in the book, the following comments by Deogratias set the scene for this book which can be read as much for the period where many of the events are true as for the well put together story itself:


as far as the police go, we dont risk anything, everything’s good. From the press side, we’re probably ok, we’ll break a few fingers if we have to. The unions and the commies are the problem but their boys, when it comes down to it, they couldn’t care less about the Arabs. On the other hand what worries us , are the judges and lawyers. De Gaulle wants to play it by the rules, we’re a republic, we respect the laws and all that. So, we’re going to have to work a little on the fringes.***


First Published in French as “Requiem pour une République” in 2019 by Gallimard.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Les routes de Deogratias et de Volkstrom s’étaient croisées du côté de Nîmes, à l’automne 1940. Le premier était un obscur gratte-papier à la Préfecture du Gard, sous les ordres d’un des plus zélés auxiliaires de Vichy, le Préfet Angelo Chiappe. Il ne lui avait fallu que quelques mois pour se rendre indispensable à l’émissaire du gouvernement pétainiste. Il était vite devenu son bras droit chargé du renseignement, des rafles, des déportations… Un zèle qu’il mettrait ensuite au service d’autres agents de l’État français puis de la République, passant, comme de nombreux autres, au travers du tamis de l’épuration.

—Et toi Malek, tu sais pourquoi tu es ici? — Non m’sieur, les policiers nous ont pas dit. — Vous vous foutez de ma gueule tous les deux! Blanchard était passé à sa «grosse voix», celle que ses collègues plus expérimentés lui avaient conseillé d’utiliser quand il interrogeait des Arabes: Tu vas voir, dès que tu te mets à hausser le ton et à prendre l’air énervé, ils se déballonnent

sur le plan de la police, on ne craint pas grand-chose, on est solides. Du côté de la presse, ça peut aller aussi, on leur cassera quelques phalanges s’il le faut. Les syndicats et les cocos vont nous emmerder, mais leurs gars, à la base, ils n’ont rien à secouer des Arabes. Par contre, ce qui nous préoccupe, ce sont les juges et les avocats. De Gaulle veut nous la jouer recta, on est en République, on respecte les lois et compagnie. Du coup, il va falloir travailler un peu en marge.