by Edith Cody-Rice
Paris Echo is the latest offering of the extraordinary writer Sebastian Faulks. I remember being absolutely absorbed and astonished by his Birdsong, a tale set in the trenches of World War I that brought one intimately, intellectually and emotionally, into the life of a sapper, one of those military engineers who crawled through muddy tunnels to set explosives in that conflict. It so evoked the atmosphere that I dreamt of rats crawling out of my walls at night.
This is Sebastian Faulk’s 14th novel. He has the story telling gift and brings his readers inside his characters in an intimate way. This novel revolves, outwardly, around the stories of a young Moroccan man and and a thirty-one year old female American academic, strangers sharing a Paris apartment. The young man, Tariq, is newly arrived, naive, ignorant, arrogant and alone knows nothing of the history of France or of Europe, or indeed of his own country. The woman, Hannah has lived in Paris as a student and is returning after an absence of 10 years. She is an historian deeply invested in the history of France and is in the country to research the role of French women in World War II. They become unlikely roommates.
But, on second level, this is a exploration of memory, of the imploding of time, of the integral part of the past in the present, of the role of remembering and the important role of forgetting. This secondary level of the novel inserts itself nearly surreptitiously, but is the more profound exploration. Tariq is free of memory, of history and sees things in the present in a fresh way.Hannah is concerned, always, about connections with the past. The role of forgetting the dark corners of the past in order to live is a theme central in the novel.
The chapters are named after the various metro stations in Paris and the metro is itself a character in the novel. The names evoke events and characters that help teach Tariq about France and about life and that mark his engagement as a participant in life, rather than an observer glued to his phone. Hannah is so totally invested in the tragic fate of her characters and in the ambiguity of French society during the war that she comes near to nervous collapse.
Mr. Faulkes does have a gift for voice. Tariq at the beginning has the voice of a young, brash narcissistic boy and this voice changes to something softer and more elegant over the course of the novel as he matures. Hannah sounds convincingly American.
As always, Sebastian Faulks has delivered a highly readable story, although it is a bit looser, and somewhat less involving than his other novels. In the course of recounting the lives of his characters, he reminds us that the French, the police in particular, were complicit in the atrocities visited upon the French Jewish population during World War II and the resistance was a relatively minor player in society until the tide turned for the Allies. He also brings forward the cruelty to the Harkis, the Algerians who fought for the French in the Algerian war, their abandonment by the French government when the Algerians gained independence, leaving them to torture and massacre by the victors. He points attendtion to the massacre of Algerians in Paris in the 1960’s under the leadership of Maurice Papon, who had directed the transportation of the Jews in the war and who gave the police free hand to torture and murder Algerians and to throw their mutilated bodies in the Seine. These events are part of the forgetting in the novel – the French have written these out of memory in order to see themselves in a positive light – but the descendants remember and hate. And that can be the problem of memory.