Much like his final novel The Magician’s Wife (1997) this is another of Brian Moore’s novels, that is more than just a political thriller, it is a work of historical fiction that brings together both his lifetime pursuit for challenging the Catholic Church (here, for harbouring a fugitive war criminal) and his curiosity for elements of a country’s history that often go undetected by the world at large.
The Magician’s Wife came about, after the random spotting of a historical fact in the notes of The Correspondence of Gustave Flaubert and George Sand that mentioned a famous French magician sent on a mission to Algeria by Napoleon II to advance the cause of mal-intended colonial interests, he was to perform to locals to undermine their faith in their marabout (mystical men).
A Chapter in France’s Dark History
In The Statement, published in 1995, he writes a story of Pierre Brossard, a French fugitive on the run, pursued by an unknown group of assassins and the gendarmerie, sheltered by various monasteries and clergy. Having previously been condemned to death in absentia by French courts for the murder of 14 Jews during the war, he has been in hiding for over 40 years.
The book felt made for its script conversion, which Moore no doubt had in mind, although its dialogue often reads more like rants against the secretive and hypocritical nature of his religious characters, rather than using the opportunity for his fugitive to be confronted by those who have taken issue with his relative freedom.
While the story itself races through the south of France, from Salon de Provence, through Aix to Nice and Villefranche, (made into a film in 2004 featuring Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton); it is the underlying history that had me ‘stop and start’ reading, looking up the many references he uses or alludes to.
Like the use of the word milice (his protagonist the fictional Brossard, was milice) a reference he does not translate from the French, a word I was not familiar with, but one that lead me down a labyrinth of links related to the military history of France during World War II. At the end of the war, in August 1944 a court martial was held against 98 milice francaise of whom 76 were condemned to death by firing squad. They rest in unmarked graves at Le Grand Bornand.
The First Frenchman Ever Convicted of Crimes Against Humanity
In real life, Paul Tourvier (1915-1996),a former officer of Vichy France, was a wanted war criminal condemned in absentia for treason and collusion with the Nazis in September 1946 and given the death sentence. Though arrested in 1947 for armed robbery he escaped and evaded capture for 40 years.
In 1966 his death sentence could no longer be upheld due to the statute of limitation and lawyers applied for a pardon. He was given this controversial pardon in 1971 by President Georges Pompidou, but remained in hiding while a new effort was made to charge him with crimes against humanity. Eventually captured, tried and convicted to a life sentence in 1994, he died two years later in prison at the age of 81.
One of the assasins in the novel, referred to only as T is the son of an Algerian Harki, another buried subject that Alice Zeniter researched in her family inspired work of historical fiction l’art de perdre (The Art of Losing).
Brian Moore described his novel The Statement as “a novel with a knife in it” – it made me wonder, who exactly he had the knife out for. Openly referring to that dark, suppressed element of French history and war crimes perpetrated by Vichy France, it pits the French police as pro-Pétain (Chief of State, Vichy France) against The gendarmerie, sympathetic to the Resistance and De Gaulle, adding in hypocritical, anti-Semitic attitudes of the Catholic church in France. But a quick glimpse into his own family history, reveals that it was more than just the Church he took issue with.
Moore’s Personal Vendetta
Living in the south of France, I noticed detail that indicated knowledge and some that was skewed, like the 13100 postcode for Salon de Provence, when it is the postcode for Aix en Provence; it made me go back and look at when it was that Moore spent time in France that gave him both that intimate knowledge and personal interest in the history, to be still writing about it just five years before his death in 1999. So, I digress.
Moore was born in Belfast in August 1921, shortly after the partition of Ireland that created the southern Free State, eventually the Republic of Ireland. His parents and childhood were traditional middle class and his early years relatively protected from the sectarian conflict violence that often erupted around them, despite being a member of the Catholic minority.
Setbacks in adolescence led to his open rejection of the Church and the stifling, provincial, class -bound Belfast atmosphere, including his parents’ religious and ideological affiliations.
Celia Nichols writes in the The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (CJIS):
Some conservative Irish Catholics, Dr Moore among them, initially supported Hitler’s march across Europe as a protest against the British Empire. Yet Brian Moore, in his independent pursuit of intellectual stimulation joined socialist youth groups, read modern authors such as James Joyce and W.H. Auden, and cultivated interests detached from the predominant Catholic ethos he had been subjected to both at school and at home.
He joined the war effort in 1939 and his knowledge of French had him willingly posted to North Africa and then to posts in Naples, the Cote d’Azur and Paris as the Allied forces advanced. These early travels and the people of many nationalities he would have encountered, contributed to his first hand knowledge, unique perspective, continued curiosity and audacious daring, in terms of the subjects he was willing to explore and confront through his ficiton.
Dedicated to “those who stayed”, “those who left” and “all those who were lost”
Like the young boy and his family, in the excellent film Belfast, Brian Moore became one of those who left, but the effect of his upbringing meant that Belfast was somehow always present, no matter what the subject of his novels.
French Presidential Elections 2022
It’s an interesting and strange tale to be reading this, as France prepares to elect a new President in the coming months, with first round voting on April 10 and the final vote on April 24, 2022 at a time when politics has become more divisive than ever.
I’m left pondering Moore’s own prosaic statement:
“I don’t think novels do change the world.”
They may not change the world, but they can lead us to look further than storytelling to understand the real life tales they are inspired by, that might serve as a warning.
If the true writer is an outsider, few have perfected this role as subtly as Brian Moore, whose finest work was always marked by his surest personal qualities: intelligence, curiosity and an abiding sense of justice. – extract from an article by Eileen Battersby, Irish Times