An unsettling story by former New York Times reporter Nossiter (Of Long Memory, 1994) that throws into high relief how France coexists today with its wartime past as seen through the prisms of place: Bordeaux, Vichy, and Tulle.
Silence has fueled preoccupation, Nossiter finds, when it comes to the French reckoning of their behavior during WWII. Those long-ago events continue to stir up very deep passions, in what amounts to a kind of national auto-interrogation—a process that is halting, distorted, and incomplete. The author visits three towns to see how heavily the past hangs over the present there, and what he finds is an ambient layer of unease. In Bordeaux, site of the 1997 trial of functionary and war criminal Maurice Papon, Nossiter sought out “those who might have reason for not remembering. This was the class that, as one of the civil plaintiffs said to me grimly, had been primarily interested in saving its furniture.” There were many such, apparently, and their memories are an extraordinary blend of the self-serving, the dismissive, and the amnesiac. Vichy, the spa town that served as the capital of Occupied France, seemed “like Baudelaire’s forest of symbols, where every building and every corner had some associative value,” and where the act of disassociation was sabotaged when “what persisted might be all the more obsessive for hardly emerging at the surface at all.” The small town of Tulle is still haunted by the events of June 8, 1944 (when German soldiers hanged 99 men and sent another 101 to concentration camps in retaliation for a Resistance action), and “the fugitive nature of the relationship to the past” hovers over the town like a pall that cannot be lifted.
A rattling congeries of the ghosts—from collaboration to collusion to compromise—that continue to bedevil France.