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Sex, Lies and the German Occupation

The Mercy Room

By Gilles Rozier

Little, Brown and Company, 192 pages. $22.95.

* * *|

The scaffolding of Gilles Rozier’s taut, affecting novel, “The Mercy Room,” has all the makings of a Sunday evening television melodrama. The scene: a small town in France during the German Occupation. The hero and narrator: a French Christian citizen, forced into the employ of the Gestapo as a translator of sensitive documents. The conflict: In the face of great peril, our hero absconds with a Jewish prisoner and hides him in the cellar.

Thankfully, Rozier’s literary sensibilities resist, even interrogate, this morally lucid frame of his tale, not unlike the stunning title piece of Lara Vapnyar’s 2003 collection of short stories, “There Are Jews in My House” (Pantheon). Most significantly, the narrator, whose gender of whom Rozier refuses to disclose (more on this later), hardly emerges as someone to regard as a righteous gentile. A German teacher, our hero is a rather impassive and taciturn sort, neither a member of the Resistance nor a collaborator. Tepid anti-Nazi sentiments obtain, but for reasons that are vague and nationalistic rather than humane. When Jewish neighbors are shuffled past the narrator at the Gestapo headquarters — most certainly toward their torture and death, as the narrator well knows — our translator feels “rather uncomfortable,” but that is all. Even more arresting is the protagonists muted reaction on witnessing the Nazis’ murder in broad daylight of a Jewish student whom our German teacher has known for years: “When the shots were fired, when Lachman fell to the ground, my students had their noses in their exercise books, and I was reading aloud…. How lovely the language of Goethe and Goebbels was.”

For much of the novel, our hero — who renders and reflects on these distant wartime events from the present — exhibits great difficulty getting worked up about anything at all, save for the teacher’s exhaustive library of beloved German literature. This all seems particularly odd, given the wartime ravages to the narrator’s immediate family. Since the outbreak of the war, the hero’s father has been taken prisoner in Germany; a brother-in-law, a Nazi collaborator, has been liquidated by the French Resistance, and an aggrieved sister shamelessly, and voraciously, takes up servicing a Nazi in the family home on a near daily basis.

Rozier is particularly skillful at evoking his narrator’s overarching aloofness toward the tumult that’s all about, which lends understated power, and even eeriness, to “The Mercy Room.” Consider, for example, our narrator’s reflections on the sister’s public rape after the Nazis are defeated: “When the Liberation came a neighbor raped my sister Anne, cheered on by everyone in our part of town. It happened outside our garden gate. I had joined the crowd. Anne was unrecognisable, her head shaved bare.” This hardly smacks of an appropriate response to a sister’s rape, and the narrator grows increasingly aware of this general deficiency of feeling as the narrative progresses. Indeed, one might view the novel as the aging narrator’s earnest attempt to take stock of events that had demanded more fully human responses from one’s quarter.

An undefined sexual crisis seems largely to account for the narrator’s central anomie. In response to vague filial and social pressures, a marriage takes place to an (of course) androgynously named Jude. But the marriage remains chaste, to the consternation of Jude’s parents. It is not as if our protagonist stands above the fray of physical longing. Our narrator, indeed, proves susceptible to sexual passion, and this is where our Jewish prisoner, Herman, enters the picture.

We know enough about the our hero’s diffidence regarding the atrocities committed against the Jews to know that our translator does not hide Herman out of any sense of moral obligation. To be sure, our narrator wouldn’t have saved a bearded rabbi from the clutches of the Gestapo, as our German teacher readily concedes: “I did not like the inevitable smell of old goat given off by even the best kept of beards.” A rather greedy lustfulness, indeed, impels the narrator’s sheltering of this Jewish prisoner, and Herman isn’t ensconced in the cellar for too long before torrid, stealthy lovemaking ensues between the two. Our translator purportedly loves Herman, but also grows aware of the degree to which one’s propitious dominion over a lovely Jew had compelled one to exercise full sensual advantage. “If I had not enjoyed making love with Herman so much,” our narrator reflects, “I feel sure I would have gotten rid of him in the end.”

The story of Herman and our narrator marches quickly, perhaps too quickly, toward a dramatic conclusion that I will not reveal here. Much hay will be made, I suspect, over the possible (even probable) maleness of the hero, which, I suppose, imbues an added frisson of scandal to some of the more lurid moments. But for my own part, this dimension of the novel seemed an authorial intrusion into the confessional narrative that Rozier so convincingly crafts otherwise, and proved distracting, above all — as narratively clumsy as my own attempts to jettison gender-specific pronouns in this review. One also wonders whether this tantalizing mystery might deflect attention from the core moral issue at hand: that regardless of the narrator’s gender or sexual orientation, he or she both rescues Herman and exploits him. Moreover, that beating a retreat into the aesthetic delights of Thomas Mann and Goethe as thousands upon thousands of one’s fellow citizens are deported to French internment camps, and then on to death camps, is a morally untenable proposition, again regardless of one’s gender or sexual orientation.

None of this is lost on our German teacher, to the narrator’s credit and to Rozier’s. That our narrator remains haunted by the memory of Herman, and by the memory of the other vanished French Jews formerly in the narrator’s midst, bespeaks the moral seriousness of this disturbing little book.

Andrew Furman is the author of “Alligators May Be Present” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005) a novel, and chair of the department of English at Florida Atlantic University.

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