If your idea of Paris is pavement cafes, accordion music, the Eiffel Tower and high-end shopping on the Boulevard St Michel, then Paris Echo will come as a rather rude awakening. In Sebastian Faulks’ latest novel, even the baguettes cause constipation. This is the Paris that most tourists either don’t see or choose not to see – the Paris of rough sleepers, illegal immigrants and the notorious banlieues, the suburbs at the end of the Metro lines that have become perilously close to ghettoes.
And this is also a Paris haunted with the “echoes” of French colonialism in North Africa and the Vichy government, of wartime collaboration and inhumanity on a grand scale. This, then, is a novel about history, about forgetting and about guilt.
When Paris Echo opens, it is on Tariq, busy admiring himself in the mirror, determining to leave his comfortable if unexciting home in Morocco. “You got to get out, man. You gotta get out,” he says to his reflection. It nods in agreement. And partly at least because his mother was brought up in France, he opts for Paris, “it was in Europe, they were Christian, they had bars, girls, old buildings, cinemas….”
Arriving in Marseilles, illegally, he meets up with Sandrine, “she had brown oily hair and looked like she hadn’t slept for days” and together they hitch rides to Paris, where they look for cheap or free food and accommodation. They are separated. Sandrine is feverish and sleeping rough until one night she is noticed by Hannah, the novel’s second protagonist, an American post graduate researching the experiences of French women during the German occupation in World War II. Hannah takes Sandrine in, making up a bed in her small apartment. “I saw no reason to distrust this feverish kid.”
It was at this point that I began to distrust Faulks. The scene seemed, and still seems, to me beyond credibility. Hannah is not a seasoned charity worker used to helping the homeless and destitute. She is a very middle-class academic. And she simply would not take someone off the street and into her home on a passing whim. Even less likely would she be to leave her alone in the flat when she goes off to work the next morning. And less likely still to allow Tariq to stay there as well when Sandrine introduces him.
For an experienced and often brilliant novelist this seems a surprisingly clumsy and unconvincing way to yoke two apparently disparate storylines together. And it nearly finished my interest in Paris Echo, which would have been a great shame as it goes on to offer so much more.
But having finally got his characters lined up where he wants them, Faulks is then in a position to do what he really wants to do, which is write about the occupied city of the 1940s and draw parallels with the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962).
Tariq finds work in a fast food joint in St Denis, staffed by illegals and refugees through whom he learns something of French brutality in North Africa. His favourite part of Paris is the Metro, confirming Kafka’s view that “The Metro furnishes the best opportunity for the foreigner to imagine that he has understood the essence of Paris”. Realising that many of the Metro names have significance beyond their location, he slowly begins to piece together the city’s history with Hannah’s help. In almost every sense, Tariq is an ingenue who slowly loses his naivety (along, possibly, with his virginity, about which he obsesses) before returning to the love of his life back home.
The most powerful part of Faulk’s narrative, however, is the testimony that Hannah is working on. These are tapes recorded by survivors of the German occupation and the Vichy government, which Tariq helps her translate. I assume these are made up as there is no reference to their actual source other than general books on the period, and they make for fascinating if horrifying reading.
The rounding up and deportation of the Jews to death camps, the dislike of the English and Americans for “prolonging” a war many French were convinced the Germans would win, the moral dilemmas of young French women in their responses to advances by German soldiers and the subsequent charges of collaboration – these echoes of the past haunt the city and render infinitely more complex the naïve image of “the most romantic city in the world” to which we are more frequently exposed.
The relationship between Tariq and Hannah is well drawn; better than the romantic relationship between Hannah and fellow academic Julian, which is a little insipid. And I have other reservations too, particularly the rather unformed obsession Tariq develops for a glamorous seamstress from the 1940s. This is part, I presume, of the underlying but rather sketchy notion that the past is permeable; that past, present and future are not as indivisible as they appear.
As Victor Hugo wrote, and Faulks quotes as an epigraph, “What is history? An echo of the past in the future. A shadow of the future on the past.”
Paris Echo is then, in my view, fairly seriously flawed. But Faulks is so fluent a storyteller and so much of his material is so interesting, that I still found myself gripped to the last page.
Author: Sebastian Faulks
Publisher: Hutchinson, contemporary fiction