Being a bit of a languages geek, I have been keeping a beady eye on the work that publisher Gallic Books have been doing over the past few years; translating and publishing some of France’s finest fiction, previously often entirely overlooked by us Anglophones across the channel. Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Slocombe, a significant departure from his usual kinky fare, is one such novel.
As well as being an avid fan of anything remotely falling under the ‘historical fiction’ umbrella, my intrigue in anything and everything World War II related has definitely been piqued since visiting Berlin earlier this year; an old city deeply affected by and steeped in its history. Slocombe’s confrontational novel allows us a glimpse into the private world and thoughts of dedicated anti-Semite and (fictional) Parisian academic Paul-Jean Husson as he writes a lengthy correspondence to his local SS officer, confessing his unbridled passion for his Jewish daughter-in law Ilse, separated from her husband by a war which threatens to shred Europe to pieces.
Engagingly and credibly written, Monsieur Le Commandant nevertheless makes for uncomfortable reading at times. Squirming at Husson’s stomach-churning racist and antisemitic slurs I left this novel not, as some might think, with a bad taste in my mouth, but with the very real feeling that I had confronted a deeply unsavoury aspect of France’s past and come out all the better for it. Despite the essential contradiction of Husson’s feelings for his daughter-in-law that even his deep-rooted antisemitism inexplicably cannot obliterate, this is a brave book, all the braver considering idiots out there that could potentially mistake Husson’s strong views for the author’s own. Flabbergasted that the larger events chronicled happened within living memory, this novel reminds us, not so gently, that many people in this life are, essentially, not very nice and that entire nations very close to home have history to be ashamed of which must be approached head-on. Atrocities were committed by men both large and small during the second World War and it is literature such as this, designed for shock and awe, that will ensure that we never, ever forget it