My partner brought me this book for Xmas. It was priced at 2/6, about 12p in today’s prices. I hoped she paid more than that, but this classic is priceless.
This copy was printed in 1959, but the original was written by Kessel in 1943, and it about the French Resistance to Nazi occupation. The German army had invaded France, and an armistice was signed near Compiègne on 22 June 1940. Life continued as normal at first, but the German war machine took more and more. France was partitioned at first, and armed resistance to the Nazi occupation did not start properly until 1942. When this book was written, France was still occupied. There were food shortages as the Germans requisitioned food, goods and able bodied men for their war effort. Jews, and undesirables like communists and republicans were rounded up and sent to the camps. Furthermore, the German army would take hostages and shoot 100 for every Wehrmacht soldier killed on French soil.
The book’s narrative holds no punches, and is a challenge to read. The novel starts with the incarceration of Gerbier, who is a Resistance leader. He escapes, and meets with his comrades. They must dispatch a fighter who has turned traitor. They do so without causing any noise, and in a brutal manner. However, this action binds them further, to each other, and to the cause of French liberation. They must keep moving, assume a myriad of different identities and stay one step ahead of the Gestapo. Failure to do so would mean torture and death. The thing they fear most is breaking under torture and revealing the identities of their comrades. Life is a constant struggle, they have no food, no home, and they must keep away from their families. Their real identities are dead. However, they are supported in their actions by all walks of life in France. Farmers with nothing, give all they have left. Families, knowing that capture means certain death, hide Resistance fighters. The Communists play a significant role. Kessel explains that they have been fighting underground for years, in France and in Spain. They have the infrastructure and experience. One of the best bits in the book is when Gerbier is being hidden by a Baron on his estate. When he asks the Baron what he thinks about working with the Communists. The Baron quickly retorts ‘Je prefére, Monsieur, une France rouge à une France qui rougisse’. [‘ I prefer, Monsieur, a red France to a blushing France’.] The Baron was shot later by the Germans, but Gerbier had made his escape.
You get to know this little band, who operate under nearly impossible conditions. Each have their own reasons for joining the Resistance, and numerous others join during the book. They are joined together by a hatred of fascism, and the unshakable wish to relieve France from foreign occupation. There are strong hints of nationalism, the Baron for example, but also French peasant farmers who just know the land; and that land is France. The book is also written at breakneck pace, as the group conduct mission after daring mission. Escape by the skin of their teeth to fight another day. Some are caught, and on occasions they need to lie low. But even these times are exciting, as the Germans constantly search for them, radio sets, and hidden provisions.
The book does not end in a victorious finale. Far from it. They must kill one of their closet comrades, who breaks down under treats from the Gestapo towards her teenage daughter. She leaves the Gestapo dungeon, and walks out into the street. Fully aware of what will happen to her, and accepting her fate. The book was finished in 1943, and even though the Nazis had been beaten at Stalingrad, and El Alaimen, Allied victory was not guaranteed. The book concludes like this, they carry on. I urge you to read this book, and keep resisting.