COATS are being turned all over France as revenge replaces resistance, writes David Robinson
End Games In Bordeaux Allan Massie Quartet, £12
IN DUBLIN, you’ll still hear people joke that the real reason the IRA blew up Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street in 1966 was because only he, up there on his plinth near the GPO, could see just how few people had joined in the Easter Rising 50 years earlier.
In France’s darkest years, from 1940-1944, the number of people in the Resistance was similarly small, at least in the earliest years. By the time of the D-Day landings, though, most French people would proclaim that, in their hearts at least, they had always opposed the Vichy regime and supported the Resistance. It was a lie, albeit in terms of national self-respect, a necessary one. What was really happening in those years is the background to Allan Massie’s four-book series of novels set in occupied Bordeaux, which reaches its conclusion here with his police inspector Jean Lannes trying to uphold justice, this time in the face of mobs out for revenge against “collaborators” – the so-called épuration. This takes us full circle: the earlier books were driven by his determination to uphold justice even when his collaborationist superiors tried to stop him.
Massie has explored this territory before – in A Question Of Loyalties (1989) as well as the three preceding books in the series and a still-to-be-published history of the influence of Vichy on post-war France – so it is worth asking what draws him back. The answer, I think, gets to the heart of why he writes fiction in the first place. As a writer, Massie is a moralist – not in the sense of teaching and preaching but of examining how people behave, especially in extremis. For this, there are few clearer testing grounds than Vichy. Suppose, for example, that you want to find a doctor who will treat a Jewish friend at a time when the collaborationist regime is sending Jews off to the gas chambers by the trainload. Will he denounce you? Will he report the hidden Jewish friend to the authorities? Can you trust anyone at all?
Massie’s Inspector Lannes – for whom this is only a moderately sized dilemma – lives in a society too distrustful to provide any easy answers. The war has seen to that. His daughter has fallen in love with a Frenchman now fighting with the Germans, his son Dominique – helped by François Mitterrand, no less – is making an uneasy transition from Vichy loyalist to barely convinced Gaullist, while his other son, Alain, who joined the Free French early on, finds his youthful idealism badly tainted by reality.
The book starts off in the drôle de paix – the phoney peace before D-Day – and it is Massie’s achievement at all times to remind his readers that the past was once the present, and every bit as fluid and unpredictable as you’d expect. So when Lannes meets some journalists as the news of the Normandy landings has broken, they are at a complete loss as to what to write in the headlines. Quite right: they know as little about the future as the young Communist member of the Resistance we overhear talking about not wasting ammunition on the retreating Germans but saving it for “the real enemy” – De Gaulle’s Free French.
Massie is covering a lot of ground here, and those who haven’t read the preceding volumes in the series might struggle to understand the depth of some of Lannes’ relationships. Behind them all, though, is an epic sweep of history. As the Allies push towards Germany, “coats are being turned all over France” and even the judges and senior police officers who once stood in Lannes’ way start being more accommodating. The end is in sight – and those happy days when he will find himself investigating murders that have nothing to do with the war, will come again soon.