This brave, delicately written book is an unexpected counterpoint to the recent celebrations of Victory in Europe, 75 years ago. It recounts the downfall – and the fightback – of an affluent family whose wealth was unlawfully plundered by the victorious French resistance around the time of the liberation of France. It is a book about money and privilege and entitlement, and about the loss of these. At its heart, driving the narrative from start to finish, is the protagonist’s outrage at a terrible injustice: his immense wealth has been stolen from him.
As a general rule, the financial misfortunes of the fabulously rich don’t trigger much sympathy in me. Since there is rarely anything very “just” about wealth, and the wealthy are overwhelmingly the ones who dispense injustice, my default reaction to such circumstances (may God forgive me, I am a bad person) is a little flash of schadenfreude. To compound matters, the ultimate villains in this story are more familiar as heroes: the great Charles De Gaulle, leader of the French resistance, and the Swedish humanitarian and peacemaker, Raoul Nordling. (What? They are to blame? These are the good guys, dammit!)
The author of this story does not want me to respond in this way. Although the book reads like a thriller, it is in fact a family memoire, recounted in old age by the protagonist’s daughter. She plays a bit-part in her own narrative: the quiet, solitary, watchful child, whose presence weaves through the story, a little face peering from behind her mother’s skirt. I loved this little girl – at once feisty and fragile, full of imagination and yet clear sighted, secure in being loved though oddly neglected in her parents’ stern world. At the start of the story she is five – just old enough to remember some of the scenes. And she loves her father. What happens to him – and by extension to her mother and herself, though she makes little of this – is utterly terrible. She wants us to know this from the start.
The book opens in 1948, with the clanking of doors as a guard in a French concentration camp escorts her father through the night to his execution as a collaborator and a traitor.
He is not, of course, a collaborator or a traitor.
After its grim introduction, the book swings back a few years, to happier times. A society party in the family’s opulent Paris home: her parents holding court, fine wine, fine food, palatial surroundings and a little girl who wants to stay up late amongst the pretty dresses. This is a dazzling bubble of privilege – the more so since this is 1944, when outside, the French resistance is at war with Germany and the population of Paris is suffering. And before this first chapter is over, all the fault-lines which are soon to fracture around our protagonist are already in evidence.
Frosell’s exceptional wealth makes him a target not only for envious “friends” but also for high ranking officials who see opportunities for gain. His complex background (by nationality Swedish, but born in Canada to an Italian mother, raised in Greece, educated in Britain and Germany) marks him out as “other” and leaves him vulnerable and unprotected. A thin sliver of tangential connection with the hated Vichy regime provides enough of a foothold for whispers of collaboration which escalate into a succession of increasingly absurd accusations and charges.
And so the world changes. The family home is commandeered, and their possessions are seized. Refusing to confess to trumped up charges, the protagonist is repeatedly imprisoned, and ultimately tortured. His health fails and the last of the family assets are lost. In his stinking prison cell he is reduced to the vile undeserved tags – “sous-merde”, “collaborateur”, “connard”.
This book well deserves its place in this blog, whose mission is “to celebrate dangerous writing in any genre: writing that challenges, that goes to dark or unexpected places, that doesn’t repeat the familiar platitudes”. Of course this book is heavy with the treachery of so-called friends, with cynical decisions by self-serving officials, with complicity by public authorities. These bitter, painful ingredients are common in stories about war-crimes, even though the victims of such stories are usually rather different from the wealthy businessman, Oscar Frosell.
But there are also other shadows in this story. It is such a gentle, lovingly impassioned narrative that one could almost miss this other darkness. One feels that the author only reluctantly lets it in. She is loyal. She presents her father, always, as a man of absolute integrity. I was reminded of the rigidly incorruptible father in Wild Swans, Jung Chang’s memoire of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. That father also refuses to collude with the lies of a “liberator” and his family suffers for it, as Frosell’s family does. But the darkness in Frosell comes from somewhere more uncomfortable.
What cannot be escaped in the narrative – though the author presents it without evident rancor – is that it is the loss of his personal wealth that obsesses Frosell. His sense of entitlement is absolute and unwavering, as is his belief in a constitutional legal system that should protect him. He has access to the best lawyers. His appetite for litigation is relentless and corrosive. (Does not the law exist, after all, to protect the interests and entitlements of the wealthy?) At intervals throughout the story he has the option of cutting a deal: he can split his wealth with the French authorities, and all his troubles will go away. These are desperate times after all, and even half of his stupendous fortune would be wealth beyond the imagining of most French citizens –certainly enough for a comfortable life with his wife and daughter. But he refuses. He wants it all, and he knows he is entitled to it all. Against better advice, he keeps returning to the legal system, action after action. There are courtroom victories – yes, there are several. But pyrrhic, all of them.
The result is material hardship : for Frosell in prison, certainly, but also for his wife and his daughter. By the time she is six, they are living in one room, barely scraping by. Yet reading between the lines – perhaps I do this too much, but his wife and daughter are innocent characters and I am angry on their behalf – there is the deeper huft of dereliction. Frosell’s wife is devoted to him, as is his daughter. Yet from the moment Frosell loses his wealth, his life is progressively consumed by the desire to recover it. Both wife and child are sacrificed to this obsession. In his rhetoric there is a certain amount of “I’m doing this for Heddy, for her future”, and the author almost never writes as if she doubts it, but for me it soon wears thin. In the intervals when he is out of prison, all his hours are devoted to his legal battles, while his wife exhausts herself in menial work and his daughter tags after in clothes donated by charity. (I could not help noting, meanwhile, that throughout these passages Frosell always has a cigarette in his mouth…) He has no time for his daughter, who is always there, present at the edge of the room. Her childhood drains away as she watches him, in awe, compliant, respectful, until eventually she is old enough to be useful in court as his unthanked amanuensis.
No. I did not like him. I felt in the writing that I was asked to see the heroism of a courageous fighter against a corrupted system, a bastion of integrity in even the most dehumanizing of places. I did see some of this. But in the reading I also found darker things, which stick in the mind and don’t let go. Beside the corruption of the system – and that was there certainly – I could also see the corrupting forces of wealth and entitlement. Beside the dehumanizing impact of prison, I saw also the dehumanizing impact of arrogant obsession. And through it all, I found the loss – and yes we all have this, all of us – of precious unreturnable years, sacrificed to things that ultimately don’t matter.
This is a slender volume, so well written that it carries one through a day of reading with deceptive ease. It lingers though. With each day thinking of it, its message seems less easy.
The Hard Hat Book Site