A FRENCH TRAGEDY by Tzvetan Todorov


Scenes of Civil War, Summer 1944
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 An unsparing look at a little-known episode of WW II that, according to the author, reveals the moral ambiguities that arise in situations of extreme violence. On D-Day in 1944, the combined partisan forces of a small town in central France took matters into their own hands and attempted to liberate the town from the Nazis and their collaborators, the French militia. That decision, according to the Bulgarian-born literary and social critic Todorov (Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, 1996, etc.), set in motion the ``aesthetically perfect form'' of a tragedy. The partisans, once they realized that the arrival of the Allies was not imminent and local support unlikely, decided to retreat from the town. They took hostages from among the Vichy collaborators, including the wife of an important official. French militiamen in turn seized 70 Jewish adults and children and threatened to massacre them unless the Vichy hostages were returned. Todorov frames and narrates these events as tragedy because ``once in motion, everything seemed to be interconnected with an implacable rigor and because the causes of calamity were not contingent and could not be pushed aside--evil ensued from goodness itself; it seemed unavoidable.'' Readers may or may not be convinced by Todorov's argument that the protagonists were caught in a web of inexorable necessity; more disturbing is his assertion that the resistance fighters had some blame for the ensuing massacre. He seems to believe that the fascist militiamen were, in part, victims, too, despite the fact that the partisans were fighting for different ideals than their fascist enemies. In a way, the story of the town of Saint-Amand, symbolically located at the geographic center of France, is emblematic rather than exceptional; the tragedy unfolding here was being played out across France and Europe. Unsettling moral and ethical problems--captured in this provocative record of one small, bloody episode--that demand to be confronted.

Pub Date: Aug. 23rd, 1996
ISBN: 0-87451-747-8
Page count: 160pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1996


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