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Authors: Romain Slocombe

Monsieur le Commandant

BOOK: Monsieur le Commandant
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MONSIEUR LE COMMANDANT
ROMAIN SLOCOMBE

Translated from the French
by Jesse Browner

To Pascal Garnier

Betrayal can be the fruit of a
superior intelligence, unbound by civic ideologies.

Paul Léautaud,
Passe-temps

FRIENDS OF THE MARÉCHAL

Pledge of Allegiance

I hereby declare that:

I am French, born of a French father and mother;

I am neither a Jew nor a Freemason;

I shall follow Maréchal Pétain in all faith;

I endorse his national and European policy

And am prepared to disseminate and defend that policy,

In the same spirit as Maréchal Pétain, in order to achieve

The active union of all Frenchmen under his leadership.

Surname: Husson

Christian name: Paul-Jean

Profession: Writer, member of the Académie Française

Address: 20 Quai de Verdun, Andigny, Département de l'Eure

I authorise the publication of my pledge for propaganda purposes.

The following letter, which comprises the main part of this work, was discovered in May 2006 by the German documentary film-maker Peter Klemm among family papers abandoned in a Leipzig rubbish dump not far from a group of buildings under demolition.

For reasons that will be readily understood, we have deemed it prudent to change the names of the letter-writer, some of the protagonists and a sub-prefecture in Haute-Normandie, as well as that of a literary award and the titles of several books. On the other hand, the occasionally excessive use of capital letters has been retained.

We have also taken the liberty of dividing the manuscript into chapters to make it easier to read.

Herr Sturmbannführer H. Schöllenhammer

Kreiskommandantur

Hôtel de Paris

10 Avenue du Maréchal Pétain

Sous-préfecture d’Andigny, Eure

Villa Némésis

4 September 1942

Monsieur le Commandant,

I should have found it easy, even in a provincial town where everything, or almost everything, becomes common knowledge, to write this letter, which you will receive this evening, anonymously. Yes, forgive me for reiterating this, it should have been easy to remain anonymous.

But anonymity, like mendacity and error – or more particularly, what I consider to be mendacity and error – inspires the most violent revulsion in me. On the threshold of old age, I shall alter neither my opinion on that nor my temperament.

This in no way explains why I permit myself to bore you with a composition that will undoubtedly degenerate gradually into a painful confession; but ever since your arrival in Andigny and the first words exchanged between reserve officer and active duty officer, I have held you in high regard. Despite the differences in our culture and age – I
believe I have some twenty years on you – I have sensed that the great distance between us and other people, you by dint of your presence in an occupied land, and I by my remoteness, pure and simple, has somehow created an understanding between us.

I have never indulged in the romantic delusion that writers ought to be saints or heroes to be worshipped at the altar; on the contrary, I believe that the cultivation of such subversive faculties as the imagination and sensibility carries a clear moral risk. That is why so few writers have led exemplary lives.

I was in Paris yesterday, where I called upon Sonderführer
1
Gerhard Heller of the Propagandastaffel.
2
I had requested an urgent meeting with him. When our interview was at an end, I restrained myself with some difficulty – although I had merely to cross the Seine and drive a scant kilometre along half-empty streets – from visiting the one who is always in my thoughts, and who at that hour was most likely still at work in her office at the Opéra.

The Gospel tells us: ‘Woe unto him who looks back.’

Holy scripture is clearly speaking here of our devotion to God, which, as I understand it, is absolute and admits of neither reticence nor rejection. One must therefore wipe the slate clean, all or nothing! And having chosen all, having been
compelled
to choose all, I must relinquish all attachment to everything I once desired. When one gives oneself to God, one must give oneself entirely. So it is with all human enterprise. Yet again, I found myself with a choice to make.

I chose.

On the way home, I was alone in the Imperia as it made its swift way along the banks of the Seine. The slope of Rolleboise rose in the distance. Dozing in the drowsy summer warmth, the countryside shone in all its splendour beside the serene river, which was dotted with fishing skiffs and little white wooden houses on stilts, their shutters closed. To my left loomed dark, heavily wooded hills, throwing a
shadow across the road that cast my mind back to the terrible events of recent days. Gazing in that direction, I thought of my daughter-in-law. Turning the other way, towards the calm, light-flooded countryside, I recalled the words of Claudel:

Neither the felicitous plain, nor the harmony of these words, nor the pleasant hue of greenery atop the crimson harvest can satisfy the gaze, which demands light itself. Over there, in that square ditch enclosed by wild mountain walls, the air and the water burn with a mysterious flame. I see gold so beautiful that all of nature seems but a dead mass, and the brightness shed by light itself but the deepest night. Delightful elixir, by what mystic path will it be given me to bathe in your scant waters?

One does not reach the light in a single journey.

One reaches it via a darkling road.

That truth has been amply borne out by three years of war – ever since that 3 September 1939, when the French, having thrown caution to the wind, set off with little enthusiasm in the name of a cause that appeared dubious at best.

All of Europe, a few countries excepted, is now engaged in the hostilities. United by conquest and the spirit of a new world, it is a common bulwark against the enemy in the East. Fourteen months have gone by since your nation, anticipating the imminent onslaught of the Soviets, boldly launched its attack on the boundless Slavic plain. In just a few weeks, you overthrew the enemy’s defences, advanced inexorably to the very gates of Moscow and, along a front stretching thousands of kilometres, were able to consolidate your positions before a winter the like of which had not been seen in years. Your offensive resumed
this spring: Kerch fell on 15 May, and Sevastopol, the strongest fortress in the world, vainly resisted a hellish siege until 1 July. The Crimea has been conquered. The brave Wehrmacht took Kharkov on 24 May, reached the Don at Voronezh, swept Voroshilovgrad and, having captured Rostov-on-Don on 24 July, occupied the lands either side of the Don before marching off to Stalingrad and the Caucasus!

Never has Stalin been in such peril, and his appeals for an
Anglo-American
distraction, the so-called ‘second front’, are growing shriller by the minute. But as you so rightly pointed out to Dr Hild last Sunday, following our game of chess in the gardens of the Bellevue, the British are already mired in a second front in North Africa, where Rommel’s armoured divisions have forced Ritchie’s Eighth Army into retreat and crossed the Egyptian border.

But let us set all this aside, for you know as well as I do how impossible it is to foretell the end of the gargantuan struggle that is now pitting one half of the world against the other.

That, in short, was what was on my mind on that Normandy road, whose every turn, copse, forest, dale, combe, spire and village I know so well … My ears picked up the monotonous drone of the engine, the wind whistling through the car window; I breathed in petrol fumes mingled with the musky scent of fields recently harvested, drenched in heat and light, and bathed in smouldering, dreamy languor, like a woman who has just made love. I passed a line of barges slowly pushing upstream, the river sparkling with reflected sunlight, air and water mysteriously aflame. As the road straightened out ahead, I put my foot down. The blood beat savagely in my temples, coursed through my tired veins. I thought of Ilse. Again!

The truth of what had to be done – cruel and blinding like the summer light – struck me.

I
had
to put an end to it.

Woe unto him who looks back.

Such was our woe, our crime, our downfall.

I set my pen aside for a moment and tried to order my thoughts. So that you might understand the reason for my long account – and for certain conversations that I shall later have to transcribe in detail, as well as for certain acts of abject violence – I must go back in time to 1932, the year when Ilse Wolffsohn entered our lives. When I say our lives, I mean mine and those of my wife and two children.

You have met Ilse, Monsieur le Commandant, having once exchanged a few words with her in French – which she speaks perfectly, as she does English and Italian. I introduced her to you that day as ‘my daughter-in-law, Madame Olivier Husson’, careful to avoid using her German Christian name. That was last year, after Mass one Sunday in autumn, I’m sure you recall. But you have never met my son Olivier. I have never spoken of him to you. You will know why.

My son always had a gift for music. Which is far from the case with me, I’m sorry to say. But God has offered me certain compensations: instead of concertos and symphonies I have my novels and my plays. Olivier first took up the piano at a very tender age, and then switched to the violin. My daughter Jeanne, two years his elder, had a rather pretty voice, and we soon began to be treated to family concerts at which Olivier accompanied her as she sang Debussy or Fauré … Jeanne had a bad influence on Olivier, turning him against religion. She came across a copy of Renan’s
Life of Jesus
and that was that; she became deeply anti-religious, to my, and especially to my wife’s, despair. Jeanne’s ideas destroyed Olivier’s devotion and gave rise to furious arguments
within the family. But I digress. The fact is that Olivier embarked on a career as a violinist and, having graduated with distinction from the Conservatoire, at the age of twenty-five joined the Paris Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Pierre Monteux.

In the spring of 1932, the orchestra went to perform in Berlin and other German cities. Olivier came home to spend a few days in Andigny that summer. He was accompanied by a beautiful young girl, blonde with languid, laughing eyes. My son introduced her as a German actress, Elsie Berger, whom he had met at a reception thrown by the French embassy in Berlin. Olivier surprised us by announcing that they were engaged, but that Elsie – her stage name, for her real name was Ilse Wolffsohn – would soon have to return to her country, where, despite her extreme youth, she had already starred in many films. My son’s ravishing conquest was only nineteen years old!

During their stay, my wife Marguerite, who was immovable on the matter (and I might add – please excuse my indiscretion – that while we still shared a room, we had had no physical relations for about a year), insisted that Ilse sleep alone in one of the guest rooms. Knowing his mother’s principles, Olivier made no objection, but it became clear to me that when they went off on their long walks through the countryside, boating excursions on the Seine, or to visit our local castle, their relations were no longer chaste. The way they smiled at each other, touched or exchanged tender, intimate glances at the least opportunity told the whole story. On several occasions at night, I heard furtive footsteps in the hallway, stifled laughter, doors discreetly opened and closed. Marguerite pretended to notice none of it. And Jeanne, who joined us at weekends, immediately adopted the young German as her little sister. As for me …

I am trying to recollect the confusion of my feelings in those early days. Like Olivier, and then Jeanne, I was undoubtedly smitten. The
German girl had – and still has, though to a lesser extent than then – a very particular way of putting one instantly at ease, a warm eloquence, a disarming enthusiasm, and a candour that was tempered by her remarkable delicacy and sensitivity. On her very first night with us, our guest sat at the piano and played us Schubert’s lieder and a few Bach partitas. My gaze was constantly drawn to her shoulders, visible beneath her diaphanous dress, and the golden hair gathered at the nape of her neck.

The young actress had received the very best education in Berlin. She spoke several languages and had even read – in translation, sadly – my best collection of poems,
Ode to Nemesis
, and, in the original, two of my best-known ‘war’ novels,
The Skirmish
and
The Ordeal
(if memory serves; and I won’t pretend that I wasn’t flattered). The latter is the book in which I recount, through the epic battlefield experience of Captain Dandigny, how I lost my left forearm on 16 October 1918 while liberating Acy, near Rethel, when Gouraud’s army foiled the German counterattack (but we’ve discussed all this already at our chess games). I hastened to offer Ilse the French edition, dedicated to her, of
Ode to Nemesis
, and we had several opportunities for intimate discussions of poetry, philosophy, literature or History – meandering conversations in which I was impressed by such extensive learning in one so young and apparently so innocent, who soon abandoned the respectful, conventional ‘Monsieur’ for the more casual ‘Paul-Jean’ – and that, too, was a source of pleasure to me. Despite our vast difference in age, I soon felt us becoming the best friends in the world. When Jeanne and I (for Marguerite, I recall, had all of a sudden decided to stay at home and had violently slammed the garden gate behind us) accompanied the couple to Andigny station, I expressed the hope that the actress’s return to the capital, and then on to Germany where a new production awaited her, would not be a lasting one, and that my son’s choice – one of the first of which, to my surprise, I entirely approved
– would soon be cemented in a union that would offer my later years the delicious presence and ever-fresh vision of that most charming and intelligent of nymphs.

That she was German bothered me not in the least, even if I had once fought against her people – your own, Monsieur le Commandant. But remember those early years of the 1930s; Europe had been transformed. Between 1918 and 1930 three empires – the Russian, the German and the Austrian – had been wiped off the map, and eight young States had been born, new hues among the expanded, shrunken or reshaped splashes of colour representing the various powers. Alongside ancient wounds, some only partially healed, the treaties had opened fresh ones. How long could it all hold together? Would the disintegration of that fragile edifice cost Europe another four years of war, hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed, billions upon billions spent, more than ten million killed and thirty million maimed, widowed and orphaned?

The policies of England and France to monopolise trade with their colonies represented a serious threat to Germany and Italy. As for the peace treaties, they had in no way enriched Italy, which was poor, and had seriously impoverished Germany, which was rich. If things continued this way, it seemed to me that a new war was inevitable, and sooner rather than later.

England, not Germany, is the age-old enemy of France, as Dunkirk and Mers-el-Kébir have proved yet again. I saw a Franco-German rapprochement as the only chance for a lasting European peace. The journalist Gustave Hervé, an ardent admirer of Hitler even before he became Reich Chancellor, suggested to the leaders of the Nazi Party that the Treaty of Versailles ought to be revised, to which your paper the
Völkischer Beobachter
responded favourably. In the introduction to his book
Une Voix de France
, translated and published in your country, Hervé wrote: ‘The National Socialist moment cannot come too soon
to France, and when it does it will ring in the hour of Franco-German reconciliation.’

Finding such ideas convincing, I signed up as an active member of the Parti Socialiste National founded by Gustave Hervé in 1929 around his newspaper
La Victoire
.

In July 1932, the military coup that set the stage for the rise of your Führer took place in Berlin.

That autumn, preceded by its steamy reputation, a film featuring Elsie Berger came to our screens. It was the notorious
Mädchen in Uniform
, the work of film-maker Leontine Sagan; shot a year earlier, it had enjoyed great success in your country and then had the honour of being chosen to represent Germany abroad. It was banned a few years later by the government of Chancellor Hitler – more for its critique of authority, perhaps, than for its sapphic content.

Under some pretext or other, I drove myself to Paris to attend a screening at a picture house on the Champs-Élysées. If you have seen these ‘young girls in uniform’, Monsieur le Commandant, you will no doubt remember the storyline. I myself remember it as if it were only yesterday that I had seen the all-female production. Orphaned at fourteen, Manuela, played by Hertha Thiele, is enrolled at a boarding school run with an iron fist by the sour Fraülein von Nordeck. Although she is welcomed by her classmates, the newcomer keeps herself to herself at first, until she projects her need for affection onto her literature teacher, Fraülein von Bernburg (played by Dorothea Wieck), the only adult who is sensitive to the feelings of the young boarders. The ardent friendship that the orphan feels for her elder becomes deeper, restoring her
joie de vivre
. Following her triumph in a staging of
Don Carlos
, in which she plays the lead role dressed as a man, she gets drunk and confesses her love for her literature teacher to her dumbfounded classmates.

While I appreciated the originality of the story and the talent of the
actors, I had eyes only for Elsie Berger, in her all-too-brief appearances as the heroine’s best friend. My son’s fiancée glowed on screen with a charm comparable to that of her peers Miriam Hopkins, Nancy Carroll or Leila Hyams – three pretty blondes appearing in the pictures of that time, and whom the German resembled. But Ilse’s voice and mannerisms were all her own. And to this very day, her almost silent expression of jealous admiration for her best friend’s bold confession seems to me to epitomise the eternal temptation of adventure and flight, perdition even, that spirit of adolescence and rebellion that society requires us to set aside, or to extirpate. Yet it seems to me that this spirit of adventure – which is in fact a thirst for creation, for God’s work – is not a bad thing in itself.

And it occurred to me that Ilse, too, barely out of adolescence herself when I had met her that summer, had yet to find a way to harness the ambition, the impetuous drive, the desire to experiment, to learn and to embrace things, that was bubbling inside her – that noble, grandiose self-belief whose rightful use it is our task to discover. And, truth be told, I doubted that Olivier was man enough to respond to such yearning.

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