Book review: One Day in France
A history written in rich, lovely language (even in translation!) about the author’s interest in digging up information about the tragic events that took place on a single day in a French village, when German soldiers murdered several (likely) Resistance members and probably an additional person, a Jewish man who may or may not have been linked to the Resistance too. And they deported the town’s Jewish residents before they called it a day. This is the catalyst, at least. From there, it’s a difficult and emotional search dependent on those willing to tell the truth, faulty and rapidly fading or completely deteriorating memories, and hoping for good luck and chance.
Unfortunately, little information was available about those involved – details are scant and complicated underground stories had many holes in their narratives. So his task was a fairly monumental one, and there were limits to how successful the endeavor could be. Even descendants of the murdered Jewish man were in the dark about the truth, so much so that they engraved their phone numbers on his memorial stone, in the hopes that someone who knew something would see and help them put some of their own pieces together. It’s kind of beautiful and remarkable that this bottle in the ocean, as he says, reached someone.
Some very poignant sections deal with memory and how it affects perception and understanding, how these can vary wildly, and how national identity and distance from the past plays into what we allow ourselves to remember. And of course, the reality that we’re rapidly approaching a time of dwindling survivors who witnessed and participated in this history. For those who remain, recalling isn’t simple. Borzeix writes of how difficult it is for some interviewees to hold onto one clear idea amidst otherwise foggy thoughts, and makes several powerful analogies like, “I ask my interviewees to dig deep into their memories, to go down into a well that, while it may not have completely dried up, has usually not produced any water for many years.” What a vivid image.
The translation is nothing short of excellent, reading smoothly and naturally and as I mentioned, at times poetic and and rich. I was so caught up with this line: “On some evenings the silence is so complete that a dead leaf, frozen stiff by the first frosts and blowing through the empty streets of the town, makes a noise that seems to fill the whole space. As if there are no longer any inhabitants alive, as if the past has finally triumphed over the present and vanquished it once and for all.” Gorgeous.
The book is relatively short, and focuses on exploring aspects of what he was able to bring to the surface – however disjointed this information may sometimes be, while exploring the limits of what and how we remember. My only complaint was that at times I was downright confused, whether by names or maybe-names, dates, lineage, moves, connections…it was all sometimes a bit difficult to untangle, maybe because it was necessary to skip around through time and place to create something book-length. But a completely worthwhile read, maybe especially for the dreamy meditations on memory and chance.
Advanced ebook copy provided for review courtesy of the publisher.
One Day in France: Tragedy and Betrayal in an Occupied Town
by Jean-Marie Borzeix, translated from the French by Gay McAuley
Published June 21, 2016 by I.B. Tauris & Company