Love Without Resistance, by Gilles Rozier, translated by Anthea Bell

The language of desire rings out in a time of prejudice
Click to follow

France has long had problems admitting the crimes committed by collaborators during the Occupation. Until Chirac spoke out in 2000, the four shameful Vichy years had been mainly whitewashed from official history. Gilles Rozier is the director of Yiddish Culture in Paris and, in this novel, he takes on this difficult history from an unusual point of view.

Love Without Resistance takes place in Vichy France. Rozier's central character is a French anti-Semite who teaches German literature and has a special passion for books forbidden by the Nazis, especially Thomas Mann's Death In Venice. Called up to Gestapo headquarters, the nameless narrator agrees to collaborate with the occupiers by translating from German into French. One day, while awaiting orders, he sees a young man who has been arrested. Struck by his beauty, he impulsively helps him escape and hides him in his cellar.

The narrator, who fails to consummate his marriage with his wife, falls in love with Herman, a Jewish Pole who also speaks Yiddish. Both men adore Heinrich Heine, and, when the tutor learns that Herman has hidden a book of Heine's poems in Yiddish, he searches for it. Herman's edition is in Hebrew lettering; the tutor decodes it and connects his love of the German language with his desire for the Jew.

The novel is a fascinating exploration of the similarities between Yiddish and German, and of how a common passion for literature can inspire erotic feelings. Rozier offers passages of Heine's poetry in both languages, showing how Yiddish is German's close cousin. What is most appealing is the way he has created a repressed Germanophile homosexual whose act of resistance is provoked by erotic longings, rather than political action.

Central to the narrative is the ongoing affair between his sister Isabelle and Volker, an SS man. There is the wild situation of the SS man coupling with the sister upstairs while her brother enjoys silent sex with the Jew in his cellar. But the absurdity topples into the ridiculous when the tutor murders the Nazi and helps Herman escape wearing Volker's SS uniform. The outcome, on the eve of Liberation, is all too predictable. One of the next taboos to come out of Holocaust research is that of homosexual abuse. This novel opens a small window on the debate to come.

The reviewer's play 'Year Zero', set in occupied France, is published by Oberon Books

Buy any book reviewed on this site at Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Comments