Michael Wallner's April in Paris was an entertaining book as I was reading, but I've found it's not been the sort of story that's lingered long after I turned that last page. It was promoted as a "dramatic story of an impossible love between a German soldier and a French Resistance fighter", but it turned out to be less a passionate love story and more along the lines of a thriller. This isn't necessarily a bad thing (and I love thrillers), but somehow the story felt a little thin on both counts. I bought it when it was first published in 2007 since I have long had an interest in the period, though I was a little trepidatious about starting it (hence that four year lag before I actually cracked it open to read). The combination of French Resistance fighter and German soldier doesn't really promise happy endings, does it.
The setting is Occupied Paris late in the war. Corporal Roth, a young soldier in the Wehrmacht, is called in to translate for the SS during interrogations of captured French Resistance fighters. It's an unpleasant job that Roth isn't particularly cut out for, but as he speaks flawless French his services are necessary and in any case he can't decline the assignment. He's told to translate the prisoners' words but forget what he sees when he leaves Gestapo Headquarters on the rue des Saussaies. It's not here, however, that Roth meets the Frenchwoman with whom he falls in love.
For the Germans, living and working in Paris during the war is a fairly cushy situation. Decent, if not downright comfortable living conditions and the opportunity to partake in Parisian nightlife which continues almost as if there were no war makes for an easygoing lifestyle. But Wehrmacht soldiers must always be in uniform, and Roth has the inexplicable habit of strolling the streets of Paris in the guise of a Frenchman named "Antoine". From the first Roth has not been comfortable in the role of 'occupier'.
"The people I'd seen on the Pont Royal had been lounging on the sun-warmed stones, their eyes shut and turned toward the light. Should someone wearing military boots pass by, they'd open their eyes. I feared those moments, when they turned away or withdrew into their homes, when they murmured curses I heard and understood. If I didn't have to look different from them, I was someone who could blend in anywhere, in any city. I wanted to disappear among them, to be part of them; no one had a right to see the other in me. Since the glorious days when we marched into Paris, I'd felt nothing but anxiety."
There is an ambiguity to Roth that makes him interesting but also confusing. One day he sees a beautiful Frenchwoman sitting outside a bookstore reading and is intrigued by and attracted to her. Thereafter he slips out of his rooms in uniform and in a bombed out passageway hides his clothes and turns into a civilian, but one who can blend in with the French population. He returns to the spot where he first noticed Chantal and discovers she is the bookseller's daughter. What he doesn't realize until it's too late is that she is part of the French Resistance. What's worse, while he's living a life of fantasy, Chantal is involved in something far more real and serious.
"Never in my romantic euphoria had I wondered about Chantal's motives or taken into consideration the reasons that counted for her. Now I saw that she had acted tactically from the first moment on. She'd played me, delivered me into her people's hands, and later, although she recognized my infatuation, she hadn't hesitated to translate their plan into action. Chantal had always been engaged in the struggle, while I, tangled up in the idyll of my imaginings, had merely been fleeing reality. She'd kept the enemy in her sights while I was trying to shuttle back and forth between the lines. She changed something, All I'd changed were the terms of my comfort. I'd wanted to escape Reich and Führer, and so I'd fled to the Frenchman, to Monsieur Antoine."
Roth's behavior becomes suspect to his fellow officers and superiors, and after a bombing leaves a number of high ranking German soldiers dead yet he survived unscathed, he finds himself the object of an interrogation on the rue des Saussaies. If it was unpleasant translating what he heard previously, it is infinitely worse to be in the seat of the victims. Now it is Roth's motives and actions that come into question, and he himself isn't even sure where his loyalties lie. From here the story turns quite suspenseful, as it's just one bullet that stands between Roth and an ignominious death.
April in Paris is well written and doesn't feel as though it's been translated, which is a nod to John Cullen's abilities, yet I feel ambivalent about it. Roth is an interesting, if curious, character. I wouldn't have minded knowing him better and understanding why and how he became the way he was. The story has all the right elements, but there was something lacking. It was a good, suspenseful story, but the relationship between Roth and Chantal weak. I had a hard time believing in their "impossible love". A note on the two covers. The cloth edition (top right) reflected the contents of the story much closer than the paperback. The paper illustration is a little misleading, which makes it look as though this is purely a love story, which it really isn't. Roth's infatuation with Chantal and their subsequent relationship is the vehicle with which Wallner seems to explore the choices people make in some of life's most difficult situations and the repercussions when what's in the human heart is unknown or misunderstood.
By the way, this is the last book I read for the German Literature Month (am finishing a little tardily). I managed to read six books, which for me is not too shabby at all.