The Resistance: a Thriller

  • Peter Steiner
  • Minotaur Books
  • 320 pp.

An ex-CIA operative seeking respite in rural France finds himself pulled into dark secrets from the Nazi occupation and the French resistance.

Reviewed by Patricia Bochi

“It was a complicated time; good and evil were things everyone had to figure out for himself.” With The Resistance: a Thriller, Peter Steiner plunges the reader into the tumultuous world of occupied France during WWII, when events and human choices defied reason.

The book is the fourth in the series featuring Louis Morgon, an ex-CIA operative who was abruptly terminated (Le Crime, L’Assassin, The Terrorist). To shed his “sordid past,” he walks for weeks through the French countryside, falling in love with its simple, quaint lifestyle. He decides to buy an old house in Saint Léon-sur-Dême, a small village in the Loire Valley that is “exactly where he longed to be.”

But pleasant life in the village has dark undercurrents that surface in his encounters with the locals, who seem determined to avoid talking about the war and the German occupation but also can’t seem to let go of it. The mere reference to misery, for example, is enough for Philippe de Bourchon, Louis’s host for the night, to unleash a tirade about the war. “You have never had your country attacked or occupied. And you certainly were never tested by the moral ambiguities we French have encountered.”

The plot begins in earnest when Morgon discovers in the crawl space of his kitchen pistols of the type that were dropped by the Allied forces to those in the resistance movement. Could this be tied to what the villagers find difficult to bring up? Piqued, Morgon sets out to investigate what might be the source of the common evasion. The village gendarme, Renard, becomes a willing partner, eager to figure out more about his own father’s controversial role during the war.

The story flashes back to the German occupation of Saint Léon, which begins on a warm day with the arrival of “a tidy convoy of two dozen trucks” filled with Germans. The period that follows the enemy’s arrival is anything but tidy, as the village becomes polarized between collaborators and the resisters. What used to be a peaceful community is now an arena, where the conquerors play the dividing game, the sympathizers throw the undesirables to the Germans, and the resisters seek to rout both turncoats and enemy.

Like Homer’s Penelope, Steiner weaves the plot with threads that keep unraveling, only to create new ones. The lack of narrative linearity mirrors the messy reality and extraordinary circumstances of the period. In guiding us through the convoluted events that forebode further conflicts, Steiner skillfully conveys what it must have been like to live during that period, trying to figure out whom to trust in order to survive. And the turmoil spares no one, as the Germans also become caught up in frictions and personal conflicts.

Yet the plot is driven not so much by actions as by the characters, whose idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities Steiner exploits to turn these characters into the complex and unpredictable forces that contribute to the uncertainty of the time. In fact, the characters become so realistic that at times Steiner’s voice seems to slip into their voices, making it difficult to understand whose point of view we’re getting.

Collaborators like Arnaud  do not favor resisting the new German government and think “that the order the Germans imposed might finally be what France needed, even if it did come from an unwelcome source and with an iron fist. After all, look how Hitler had restored Germany to order and prosperity after the Great War.” Others collaborate because they see “a unique opportunity ... [to] defeat communism once and for all,” even if it means siding with the enemy. “Some may find this distasteful. But the world of politics is rarely tidy.”

Parallel to the collaborationists, Steiner recreates, through characters like Count de Beaumont and Onesime Josquin, the world of the maquis — the brave and selfless  members of the underground resistance network who shelter Jews and other refugees and move them along for safe passage to Spain. “They were all part of an odd army, a phantom army. No one knew what anyone else was doing. No one knew how, or even why, it operated. Who were its officers, who were its commanders and strategists? Did the sabotage and assassinations and secret rendezvous even add up to anything?”

At times, Steiner writes with a lyrical beauty in describing the villagers’ steady resilience and their quiet acts of defiance and resistance in the face of danger. When a group of hostages is about to be executed, one of them “tried to sing ‘La Marseillaise,’ which was forbidden, but what did it matter now? But to his shame and distress he could not remember the words, and so his voice trailed off into silence. Hemon began to sing ‘The Internationale,’ the Communist hymn, but he could not finish, either.”

And after the execution, people “stepped forward gingerly, as though they were walking onto a frozen lake that had been open water the day before. They held on to their doors in case the ground should give way under them.” Jacky, the hotel waiter, “carried a stack of folded white tablecloths on his outstretched arms. When he reached the dead bodies, he went down on his knees and began spreading the tablecloths over the corpses. He did it quickly, deliberately, with a practiced hand, for he had flung tablecloths over many a table.”

In a counterpoint to the book’s tragic theme, Steiner, a part-time resident of France, begins the story by peppering it with culinary and cultural references, delivered with tongue-in-cheek humor. Morgon is named after a Beaujolais from the novel’s location; Detective Renard’s name is the French word for fox. But when Steiner uses mysterious pamphlets to deliver news from the Allies, decry the occupation and incite resistance, the ploy seems contrived, as though written to explain events to readers more than to advance the story in a convincing way.

Although The Resistance is complex and suspenseful — the sine qua non for any successful thriller — it is much more than a thriller. In presenting the story of wartime secrets that unravel after many a detour, Steiner captures, in his well developed characters, convincing dialogue and artful descriptions, the malaise of the time and the difficult moral choices all were forced to make. And Steiner captures these so well that we forget the plot, savoring instead a work of literature.

Ultimately, The Resistance is a story about the human response to conflict, whose lessons its protagonist — a foreigner and a stranger — ponders. “And what did the numbers matter anyway in the face of the betrayal, the treachery, the brutality? The tens of millions of dead were an abstraction. Scholars might find the numbers useful or telling or significant. But they were — like light-years, like the distance across the Milky Way, like the temperature of the sun — simply beyond imagining.”

Patricia Bochi is a writer working on a novel about WWII.  She is also a features editor for The Independent.

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