30 March 2018

Robert Merle: Week-end-à Zuydcoote | Week-end at Zuydcoote (1949)

Week-end à Zudcoote (translated as Week-end at Zuydcoote) is Robert Merle's first novel and received the Goncourt in 1949. Ironically, the title might suggest a weekend break (by the sea) but this still from the film on the cover belies that idea: this is a book about the defeat of the Allies by the Nazis in World War II and the aftermath as many try to escape over the channel. It is a novel of fear, violence, fleeting friendships or acquaintances, attempted survival, but most of all absurdity and death.

Four Frenchmen in the wreckage of Zuydcoote near Dunkirk (Dunkerque) make up the bulk of the story, Julien Maillat being the central character, the one the narrative follows on his incessant mainly pedestrian journeys, talking to a man carrying a dead woman with a large hole in her head, trying to escape across the channel with the 'tommies' before having to swim back to shore, killing two fellow Frenchmen trying to rape a young girl, etc.

Most of all though, we see Maillat's interactions with the other three: Pierson the curé, with whom (as an atheist) Maillat has brief theological discussions; the tall, thin Alexandre who does the cooking; and the cowardly fat Dhéry who dreams of riches after the war.

As the Nazis draw inevitably closer, Maillat leaves for neighbouring Bray-Dunes, to join the girl Jeanne, whom he saved from the rapists, is reluctant to leave the family home in spite of the fascists closing in, and whom he (incongruously) talks of marrying. Ineluctably, the end is climactic.

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