There can be few characters in modern fiction more unpleasant than Paul-Jean Husson, the narrator in Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur le Commandant. Indeed, he is at times too nasty. If this otherwise compulsively readable novel about betrayal in Nazi-occupied France has a flaw, it lies in Husson’s irredeemable villainy, as if to make such a man more rounded, more subtle, were to allow a flicker of understanding for his actions, or to suspect the author of a degree of sympathy for the man.
Husson is an anti-Semite, a Pétainist, a much-decorated hero of the first world war and a member of the Académie Française. He numbers among his friends Céline, Brasillach and Jean Luchaire, and all the other members of the clique of enraged nationalists who believed that the freedoms won by the French revolution, and more recently by Léon Blum’s liberal government, were nothing but moral degeneracy and ‘democratic anarchy’. The Europe they longed for and wrote about in their inflammatory columns was to be free of Jews, Freemasons and Bolsheviks.
Husson enjoys their company, joins their movements, meets the more literary-minded German occupiers. Slocombe is deft at weaving the world of Pétain’s followers, the rabid nonsense of their revolting writings and a description of Vichy’s collaborators and their German friends, seen from their side, in with his short, sharp tale of treachery.
Cast in the form of a letter to a high ranking German officer, befriended over games of chess, and written in September 1942, when the occupiers were moving into their most murderous phase, Monsieur le Commandant tells the tale of this ageing man of letters increasingly infatuated with his son Olivier’s beautiful wife Ilse, a German actress who enjoyed a certain success in the films of the early 1930s. With the arrival in France of the German forces in the summer of 1940, long-simmering family tensions destroy what apparent pleasantness existed beforehand. Olivier, objecting to his father’s views, disappears to England to join De Gaulle. Ilse and her daughter, and, soon a son, for she discovers that she is pregnant, seek protection with her parents-in-law.
As Vichy’s anti-Semitic ordinances begin to bite and the Jews lose their jobs, their businesses, their homes and their long-held rights as French citizens and are forced to wear yellow stars, so Husson becomes obsessed with the idea that Ilse and his grandchildren may in fact be Jewish. A private detective confirms his suspicions.
Embarrassingly, his lust for Ilse only keeps growing. To protect her, as further anti-Semitic decrees take Jews off to internment camps and from there to the extermination camps of former Poland, Husson resorts to ever more vociferous attacks on Jews in the newspapers. Conveniently, they reflect his own views. How he resolves his dilemma — how to save Ilse and the children, yet remain faithful to his hatred for all things Jewish — is the crux on which the book hangs.
Monsieur le Commandant is a gripping, if deeply uncomfortable, read. To his clever portrait of the people who brought Pétain to power, and kept him there through four years of collaboration, Slocombe adds a further mix of torture and brutality. The story of France’s anti-Semitism is one much told by historians: it has seldom been written about so powerfully by a novelist.