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Children of Freedom, by Marc Lévy, trans Sue Dyson

Hormones and heroism

In France, Marc Lévy is a literary superstar whose books automatically dominate the bestseller lists. He has an international profile to match, with his work translated into 38 languages. But so far his brand of ironic, tragi-comic romance has failed to make much impact in the Anglosphere. Children of Freedom is a rather different kind of book: an account of the Brigade Marcel Langer, a cell of resistance fighters in Toulouse under the Vichy regime. Although presented as a novel, it is closely based on the experiences of Lévy's own father, Raymond.

The book falls into three parts. In the first, the (fictionalised) Raymond recounts how, with his younger brother Claude, he joins the Resistance and spends nine months shooting German soldiers and Vichy officials, blowing up factories, and sabotaging German supplies – by, for example, slipping sand and molasses into fuel-tankers.

Though in outline this is familiar material, Lévy adds some fresh gloss. One surprise is how heavily the French Resistance relied on foreigners, seeking sanctuary from Franco's Spain, Mussolini's Italy or the advancing Nazi armies. Another is the youth of the fighters: Raymond was 18, Claude 17, the average age of their cell 20 or 21. All those adolescent hormones, and a more or less even mix of sexes, made the atmosphere feverish, fear of capture and hatred of the enemy mixing with barely suppressed lust.

The second part describes the six months Raymond spent in prison, on starvation rations and facing the prospect of the firing squad. The third takes him criss-crossing France in a train destined for Dachau, as the Allied armies fought through Normandy.

This journey includes moments of scarcely believable optimism: as when Raymond, peering out of the truck, exchanged glances with an RAF pilot flying at treetop level alongside the train. When I met Lévy, he assured me that this, like nearly everything in the book, is completely true. More than 40 years later, his father and the pilot met. It's a shame the cover underplays the book's factual basis, marketing it as romance. I'm sceptical that Lévy's oblique and sometimes sentimental style will appeal to an Anglophone audience, especially given a translation that struggles for a consistent tone: at one point, Raymond and Claude address each other as "Bro". The heroism of Raymond Lévy and his comrades deserves better.