cover image A French Tragedy

A French Tragedy

Tzvetan Todorov. Dartmouth Publishing Group, $22.95 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-87451-747-7

A respected literary theorist and cultural critic, Todorov's most recent books have increasingly delved into complicated issues of history and morality. This year's Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps looked at the heroism and--less epic but equally important--human decency in Nazi and Soviet camps. The overlooked events in the town of Saint-Amand Montrond are a microcosm both of his thinking on morality and of France during the war. A combination of confusion and misplaced enthusiasm caused local resistance fighters to conquer the town on D-Day only to discover the next day that they had jumped the gun and the Germans were still in charge. The fighters run for it, taking as hostage eight militiamen (members of the Petainist military police) and several women found with them--including Simone Bout de l'An, wife of the secretary general of the militia. Her husband, Francis, offers an ultimatum: his wife and the other female hostages, or he will start shooting friends and relatives of the resisters. After long, difficult negotiations by civilian leaders the women are exchanged. What had been something of a farce, turns into a true tragedy because the resisters, on the run from the Germans, kill their militiamen hostages. The brutal anti-Semite Joseph Lecussan takes his revenge on the area's Jewish population, ultimately killing nearly 70 innocent people. Todorov's history of this overlooked episode is methodical, a discourse on responsibility, morality and heroism. Writing scene by scene in present tense, he eschews portentousness for cool exactitude which makes the eventual horror of it all the more affecting. (Aug.)