The Pataki siblings’ chronicle of the French Revolution charts the impact of the Terror on two Frenchmen of disparate backgrounds.
This novel covers the period from 1792 to 1804, beginning just as the order is given to execute Louis XVI by guillotine. Two characters alternate points of view. Capt. André Valiere is a former aristocrat whose last name used to begin with de. (His father was guillotined in the prologue.) Only his army career has saved him from the rabble’s wrath, particularly since his detachment, fighting under another ex-aristo, Gen. Kellermann, foiled an attempted invasion by Prussian and Austrian forces aimed at stopping the revolution. Soon, though, Gen. Kellermann is on trial for making remarks interpreted as pro-royalist. Jean-Luc is a young idealistic attorney who moved with his wife from a pleasant rural existence near Marseille to Paris, hoping to contribute to the revolution. Employed as an underpaid functionary in a ministry which inventories the confiscated possessions of the nobility, Jean-Luc has a chance to advance when Lazare, a powerful confidant of Robespierre, offers his patronage. However, Jean-Luc’s conscience compels him to defend the rights of man, including free speech, by representing Kellermann at his trial, thus incurring the lasting enmity of Lazare, Kellermann’s prosecutor. André, who has stepped up to testify as a character witness for Kellermann, is also in danger: it was Lazare who brought down André’s father. Jean-Luc and André each have to decide whether to flee Paris or risk execution. Meticulously researched, with many extended discussions in cafes and back rooms—not to mention a couple of boudoirs—the book succeeds in forcefully illustrating the lessons of the French Revolution for today’s democratic movements. However, sheer talkiness too often overpowers the narrative, and the swashbuckling close is too little, too late.
A worthy but, finally, stultifying novel.