Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant: A Wartime Confession, which I read in Jesse Browner’s translation from the original French, is one of the more sordid World War 2 novels I’ve read in some time. Most of Monsieur Le Commandant is in letter form: Paul-Jean Husson writes one long letter, dated 4 September 1942, to Herr Sturmbannführer H. Schöllenhammer, “Le Commandant” of the title. The letter was ostensibly found “by the German documentary film-maker Peter Klemm among family papers abandoned in a Leipzig rubbish dump not far from a group of buildings under demolition.”
|Pétain and Hitler, 1940. Photo: Das Bundesarchiv, via Wikipedia|
Husson—a World War 1 hero, committed Pétain follower, and snooty anti-Semite—writes to Le Commandant to ask a favor. On behalf of his daughter-in-law, for whom he feels [cue “sordid”] forbidden feelings… Since much of Husson’s story is fairly predictable, I don’t think it spoils much [that’s an alert of sorts!] to say his daughter-in-law, Ilse, is German and Jewish, which makes Husson’s ardor all the more forbidden, thanks to his odious beliefs, which he often illustrates using anti-Semitic clichés. Husson is such a charmer that it came as absolutely no surprise when he said he’d cheated on his wife over the years (I even wrote “what a jerk!” in the margin) with hundreds of women, many of whom he claims were attracted to his stump and prosthesis. He thinks his wife “wisely chose to turn a blind eye and not dig too deeply.”
Though Monsieur Le Commandant has a plot that includes travel through occupied France and Husson’s pursuit of Ilse while his son/her husband is at war, what interested me most was Husson as a character and as a writer. In Husson, Slocombe creates a thoroughly unappealing figure who writes things like, “Against my own will, my family and my life were being ‘Judaised’. Little by little, a surreptitious leprosy was eating away the fabric of a good French Christian family.” It’s hard to even decide if Husson is a reliable or unreliable narrator: he’s so openly anti-Semitic that those feelings felt true but he’s also so melodramatic and over-the-top in his passions and, perhaps even more important, his self-expression that I had to wonder how much of what he claimed to feel was genuine and how much he was inventing himself as the (anti-) hero of his own story, for both himself and Le Commandant.
Monsieur Le Commandant works because Browner’s translation makes all Husson’s melodrama and passion seem so surrealistically and paradoxically real. Browner’s Husson feels appropriately and consistently wordy, pompous, and self-absorbed. It feels odd to say I thoroughly enjoyed Monsieur Le Commandant—the book is, of course, uncomfortable, because of Husson’s moral code—but I couldn’t put it down, thanks to the combination of Slocombe’s storytelling, the voice Browner creates for Husson, and my interest in French collaboration during World War 2.
Disclaimers: I received an advance review copy of Monsieur Le Commandant from Meryl Zegarek Public Relations. Thank you very much! The book’s publication date is listed on the book as February 21, 2014.
Up Next: Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra.