Reviewed by: L. Gregory Graham
World War II can be a touchy subject. It is still too fresh in our collective memory. In addition, there is film. As a result, it is very hard to romanticize it or to stray far from the truth. This novel of three hundred pages confronts these obstacles and manages to tell a compelling story.
Vichy France is a deal with the devil at best. The Nazi’s, acting the part of the Devil, promise that they will not rape and pillage too much if citizens of France promise not to resist. The deal is frequently violated on both sides. The Nazi’s take what they want, and violate whomever they choose, and the French organize a resistance movement that does what it can to kill soldiers and sympathizers and disrupt Nazi hegemony.
This is the world of August Ran, an assistant Chief of Police, in Bergerac, a small town in the south of France. He is a just man, a moral man who knows on the most basic level that the social fabric must be maintained. The guilty must be punished, and justice must prevail no matter who is in charge. When the order comes down from the Nazi’s that all Jews in the prefecture must be identified, he compiles the list and passes it along. When the order comes down that all Jews must wear a yellow Star of David on their coats, he enforces this also. Only when the orders come that he must round up the Jews for deportation to work camps does he wake up to the moral implications of his actions.
To make matters worse, he is sheltering the daughter of his boyhood Jewish friend who has joined the resistance, and the Nazi in charge of his area has raped and murdered a young woman. It looks as if the monster will get away with it and be free to rape and murder again.
August finds himself plunged into a moral nightmare without easy answers. Should he obey Nazi orders and round up the Jews if he knows that they will be killed? Should he continue to harbor the Jewish girl when it jeopardizes his own family? How can he allow the Nazi commander to get away with rape and murder? Isn’t he in the final analysis a policeman, and isn’t his job to protect the people of Bergerac from monsters like the Nazi even if the courts and the penal system no longer function as they should? Finally if he kills the commander, is his immortal soul forfeit or is he absolved because he is an instrument of God’s will?
Nath does an excellent job of depicting one man’s moral and intellectual struggle to make sense of a world turned upside down. It is far too easy for us, seventy years after the war to label all Nazis as evil and deserving of death. It is another thing to walk in the shoes of a just man faced with the enormity of the Nazi regime. When does one decide that killing is the only answer?
It is not an easy question. If you don’t believe me, change the circumstances. Should an Iraqi man who watched his family killed by an American soldier take that soldier’s life when he gets the chance? Is he morally justified in doing so?
There is a gritty appealing reality to this story. Sometimes one must find a way to work with evil to preserve a greater good, sometimes one must decide when evil has gone too far, and sometimes one must resist it knowing the consequences. They are tough decisions that take a man back to the basics. What does he believe and why does he believe it?
The story is a compelling one. There were times when I wearied of August’s internal monologues, but in the end, it is worth it. August does what he must because of who he is and what he believes. That makes him a hero.