8 November 2014

Régine Deforges: 101, avenue Henri-Martin (1983)

The design of this book cover, with Léa Delmas and her blue bicycle in the foreground and a germanopratin* background – Café de Flore on the left, Abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the right – is fine. It's just a shame about the gaudiness of it, which gives it the appearance of a trashy novel, which it isn't at all.

Régine Deforges's 101, avenue Henri-Martin is the second volume in La Bicyclette bleue series, and I think it's more successful than the first volume. But it's much darker than the first, with the love interest cut to a bare minimum. The Prologue, with the murder of scores of French prisoners by Nazi firing squad, gives a brief (and very subdued) idea of the violence the reader is in store for.

As in the first volume, the story is set in both Paris and the Bordeaux area, and Léa, her sisters, her sister-in-law Camille and her lover François still play a prominent role, although her early lover Laurent only makes a few brief appearances.

Much more to the fore is Léa's gay friend Raphaël Mahl, who is an eccentric but likeable writer who is obviously making quite a profit from the black market, but who may well be a police/Gestapo informant. His existence more or less sums up the threatening and fearful atmosphere of the second volume: no one at all is to be trusted. In fact the least members of the Resistance know about each other the better because under torture almost everyone cracks and is forced to reveal the whereabouts and activities of even their closest friends.

Literary references abound: in a bookshop Léa replaces a message inside a volume of Proust and the assistant recommends she read Marcel Aymé; Mahl is obsessed by literature and as an adolescent was much affected by Le Jardin des supplices by the anarchist Octave Mirbeau (incidentally buried in Passy, although that is not mentioned here), and shows Léa the tombs of Renée Vivien and Marie Bashkirtseff in the cemetery at Passy and gives as a password a line from Baudelaire; François takes Léa to Chateaubriand's Vallée-aux-Loups in Châtenay-Malabry, and so on.

The most striking thing about the book, though, is not just the atmosphere of terror, but the horror of the Nazi régime itself, and just to give a few examples: Sarah's living but mutilated body after the cigar-burn torture; Raphael's beating up by the Gestapo and later gruesome murder in prison for having betrayed young Loïc (but strangely, not Léa's uncle Adrien); and worst of all, the London radio announcement in French of more than one hundred Jews being bundled into a tiny wagon with five centimetres of quicklime to eat their feet and asphyxiate them, as if they wouldn't already be asphyxiated – and them being left like that for about a week, when their dead bodies are shovelled into a pit.

Not a comfortable read, but there is a tremendous power here.

* germanopratin is simply a French adjective for the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of Paris.

My other Régine Deforges post:

Régine Deforges: La Bicyclette bleue
Régine Deforges: Le Diable en rit encore
Régine Deforges's grave

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