We’ve surely all read many World War II novels. So one might be forgiven for asking what yet another such book could possibly add to the already existent heaps. But it is worth reading Monsieur le Commandant anyway, because it tells the reader about the war from a rather different perspective, and the ending, though what is to come is hinted at, is still shocking. This novel is horrifying and yet it is nonetheless hard to put down.
Monsieur le Commandant is about Paul-Jean Husson, a veteran of World War I, novelist, and member of the French Academy. He writes a letter – which is the length of the book – to the Nazi officer in charge of his hometown in France, telling him about his life, discussing his political views (all in favour of Nazi policies), and making a special request.
The letter initially lulls the reader. Yes, Husson is clearly a Nazi sympathiser who would like to rid his homeland of unworthy, foreign elements, and yes, he regularly writes extremely anti-Semitic articles, but he is also a successful author with a creative mind, and he is a family man, devoted to his wife, although he cheats on her regularly, and to his two children. But Husson then becomes obsessed with his son’s wife, and it is this unhealthy obsession that drives the plot into more terrifying, and also ironic, territory.
As Husson points out, ‘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.’ Indeed, Husson does not lead an exemplary life.
The protagonist has no fondness for Jews: ‘Jews pose a national and social threat to every country in which they are found. National, because the Jews are a homeless nation and assimilate only superficially into the civilisation of the country that has nonetheless honoured them with its welcome. Social, because the Jewish mind is critical and subversive to the highest degree; its seditious tendencies, being in no way mitigated by patriotic loyalty, lead it to criticise the institutions of the country to which it has attached itself, sometimes undermining and even destroying them.’
Beyond his proudly anti-Semitic views, Husson is apparently nothing less than honest in his letter to the Nazi officer (openly discussing his masturbatory fantasies about his daughter-in-law, for example, or his attempt to protect a Jew). Nevertheless, this honesty about who he is, what he believes, and how he behaves does not prepare the reader for the choice he makes at the end.
A reader might hope that someone who holds such prejudiced views would change by the end of the book, but perhaps that is not too realistic a wish, given what we know about what actually happened during the Holocaust. The ending will not be given away here, however.
Gallic Press has been publishing ‘the best of French in English’ for six years, and the company is a wonderful resource for anyone who appreciates French literature and/or literature in translation. Monsieur le Commandant was translated by Jesse Browner, an American novelist, food historian, and translator.
And Monsieur le Commandant is a great read that angers and educates in turns, letting readers have access to the perspective of collaborators during World War II, which is not often depicted in literature.