The Statement by Brian Moore
by Brian Moore
Dutton. 256 pp. $21.95
A voluminous literature has accumulated on Vichy France and on the story of French collaboration with the Nazis during World War II; but there have been remarkably few attempts, either scholarly or artistic, to get into the mind of the ordinary foot soldier of evil. Louis Malle’s 1973 film, Lacombe, Lucien, remains, more than twenty years after it came out, a solitary work. All the more reason, then, to welcome The Statement, in which the Irish-Canadian novelist Brian Moore examines the relationship of the French Catholic Church to the legacy of Vichy through a fictional recreation of the real-life affair of Paul Touvier.
A middle-ranking member of the milice, the Vichy regime’s homegrown counterpart to the Gestapo, Touvier was tried for treason in absentia after the war and condemned to death. For decades he eluded capture, thanks to a right-wing campaign mounted on his behalf and to the complicity of certain ultra-orthodox (intégriste) Catholic circles with connections high up in the Church hierarchy. Even after being finally arrested in 1988, he was able to exploit legal obfuscations and the French government’s own reluctance to move forward; not until 1994 was he tried, and found guilty, on fresh charges of crimes against humanity. He was condemned to life imprisonment amid an ongoing national controversy over the behavior of French institutions and individuals during the war. Touvier died in prison this past July, aged eighty-one—just as The Statement was being published in the United States.
The novel, which is in the form of a thriller, takes place in the late 1980’s over a period of less than two weeks in a small corner of Southern France. Posing, as he has done since the war, as a devout Catholic who has repented the crimes of his youth, Pierre Brossard (Touvier) has been hiding from the police for over 40 years, exploiting the hospitality of various austere abbeys and monasteries. Now he appears also to be pursued by an organization determined to avenge the June 1944 murder of seven Jews by the Lyons milice (in reprisal for the assassination by the Resistance of a notorious Vichy official). To complicate matters, a young investigating magistrate has lost patience with the efforts of the police to get their man. Suspecting with some reason that the police may be part of the problem, she secretly assigns the case to an officer of impeccable record from the rival gendarmerie.
Brossard has aged a good deal since the glory days when the Nazi head of the Lyons Gestapo complimented him on his efficiency and his Aryan looks. He remains shrewd as a fox, however, and he can still handle a gun. As justice closes in on him from different sources, he begins to take desperate steps. The book’s climactic scenes involve the playing-out of interconnecting dramas of conscience and revenge, ending in a spectacularly different manner from the true-life story on which they are based.
This is not the first time Moore has taken on Catholic questions from an unexpected angle. In The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), a middle-aged spinster is driven steadily insane by the combined force of her own frustrations and the stultifying atmosphere of Catholic Ulster. Black Robe (1985), set in the 17th century, follows two Jesuit missionaries to the North American Huron and Algonquin; in that novel, Moore’s morally complicated vision of his twin soldiers of God is matched by a thoroughly unromantic assessment of the brutalities as well as the beauties of Indian life.
Similarly, in The Statement, Moore does not settle for a simple understanding of the people at the core of the intégriste church: priests and monks who live in terror of an outside world controlled, as they believe, by immoral secularists and Jews. Brossard himself, as Moore paints him, is a racist hater, so utterly and unrelentingly xenophobic he cannot even imagine fleeing to South America like his former boss, Klaus Barbie, lest he find himself surrounded there by blacks. His protectors, though, are another matter. In the eyes of many of them, the mere fact that “the Jews” are after Brossard is enough to presume him innocent, perhaps even a hero or martyr. But others must twist themselves into knots in order to evade what they know to be their chief duty—recognizing and condemning evil.
In their moral tergiversations they cannot turn for help to the mainstream Catholic Church, which has directed that Brossard not be sheltered and later repudiates the intégristes altogether. Moreover, if, as Moore delicately shows, Catholic trappings can conceal an absence of faith, and institutional history encourage self-deception, it is also from deep within their faith that some, at least, of the intégriste priests find the strength to transcend the endless self-questioning that substitutes for moral action—should we not love the sinner, even as we hate the sin?—and confront Brossard for what he truly is.
When all is said and done, the French do know, in a general way, what they did in the war years: the self-serving myths of the Resistance have long been punctured. Indeed, when Paul Touvier finally came to trial in 1994, he had no real defenders to speak of; the President of the Republic, François Mitterrand, equivocatingly proposed that bygones be allowed to be bygones, but by this time Mitterrand had himself been badly compromised by revelations of his own wartime record, which included a period of service in the Vichy regime before joining the Resistance.
At the same time, however, the history of their society-wide collaboration is something most Frenchmen, including most artists and intellectuals, would rather not be asked to dwell on—and they have a special aversion to thinking about the dirty role their countrymen played in the Nazi war against the Jews. For many years, a consensus was maintained in France that these crimes were the work only of a few Nazi sympathizers, helped by thugs working under the coercion of the occupying German authorities. The bad conscience that resulted from this act of collective denial, and in particular the burden placed on those whose spiritual calling it should have been to confront it, may not exactly seem to be the stuff of thrillers; but The Statement does a fine job of bringing these and other issues into both moral and imaginative focus.