My heart was heavy and my thoughts troubled when I finished reading Sarah’s Key a few weeks ago. Like most readers, I love a happy ending; a sigh as I tread softly on the words in the epilogue, a smile and a hop to my step. Sarah’s Key, however, left me with a sad heart and with an interest in learning more about Nazi occupied Paris and the French Resistance. As I rumbled about finding the next book to read, there on the very bottom of the pile was a book I managed to retrieve for $1 from a library bin, thinking it was Midnight in Paris, and discovering it was something quite different.
Quite different, indeed.
Roth is a German soldier stationed at a translator’s desk in a back office of Paris in 1943 where he transcribes innocuous papers. When it is discovered that he not only speaks fluent French, but that he speaks it without an accent, he is abruptly reassigned to SS headquarters where he translates for the Nazis during brutal interrogations of French Resistance fighters.
In his free time, Roth takes to donning civilian clothes, against military regulations, and wandering the streets of Paris, pretending to be a French citizen, Antoine. He sees a beautiful French woman outside of an antiquarian book store and becomes obsessed with meeting her. Chantal is not all she seems to be, however, and the story takes on dangerous multiple identities, putting Roth in compromising situations as he realizes Chantal is involved with the French Resistance – and she realizes he is a German soldier.
Michael Wallner’s book was at times pleasant as Roth wandered the street of Paris, and it was a quick read. It was also a troubling account of the Nazi interrogations and brutality, the fear and suspicion of the French citizens living under Nazi domination, and a glimpse into the seedier side of the salons and back streets of Paris nightlife.
While I would not say that this is the best written novel, it is a page turner that I suspect will be made into a movie. Wallner is a German actor and screenwriter. It is, however, a compelling and suspenseful read. I found the descriptions of Paris in 1943 engaging, especially as Wallner took us along with Roth down the side streets and the hidden spaces of the French Resistance.
There was also a brief scene where Roth, beaten and fighting for his life – for the Nazis do discover his duplicitous behavior and suspect him of collaborating with the Resistance – reflects on how he has spent his time riding between the two sides of wartime Paris, witnessing horrific interrogations as he sits and translates from one language to another, never expressing emotions, then pretending to be a Frenchman a short time later. I gave me time to pause and reflect on how we often straddle the fence on issues both large and small. How easy it is to tilt one’s head to the side and pretend to not see what is really there. How it is often easier to just let someone else worry or take care of “it”. A good book, if not a great book, should give the reader a chance to pause and reflect and to endeavor to be a better person for reading it, don’t you agree?
Clarification: In saying that this is not the best written novel, I mean that some of the subplots I think could have been better developed and I had the feeling this was written with a movie in mind. Having said that, I must also say that this is a translation of a book originally written in German. I find it to be a very good translation, but, translations can sometimes miss certain meanings and such from the original. It is, at the end of the day, er read, a very good book. I hope you will read it.
There is a reference in the book to Maurice Chevalier singing a song about April in Paris (not the Doris Day song). I did a little hunting, and found this early recording that you might enjoy.