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Pickle Me This

July 27, 2007

April in Paris by Michael Wallner

Michael Wallner’s first novel April in Paris (translated from German by John Cullen) was fascinating to read having recently finished The Portrait of a Lady. Not that Wallner’s scope could be considered Jamesian by any means, but Roth, his protagonist, reminded me of Isabel Archer. This in his youth, in his worldiness-acquired-by-library, in his belief that he could “walk between the lines”, not “take up a position.” That he wants to be in the world, but not of it. Which is always a dangerous game, but particularly if you’re a German soldier in occupied Paris.

Roth’s work translating confessions for the Gestapo exposes him to the reality of the Third Reich, making him question his war in a way his fellow soliders might not be inclined to do. Seeking an escape, Roth sneaks away in civilian clothes whilst off-duty, assuming the persona of a Frenchman he calls “Antoine”. Matters become complicated when Antoine falls in love with the daughter of a bookseller, and she turn out to be working for the Resistance. As best he can, with luck and guile, Roth gets away with his double-life for a while, until the plot becomes too thick, and he is suspected of involvement with the bombing of a club attended by German officers. From this point Roth is no longer in control of his story, and the character he becomes through subsequent events is certainly not one of his choosing.

In this life, as a superior explains to him, “No one decides what’s going to happen to him.” Roth’s attempt to defy this from the outset becomes his downfall. Like Isabel Archer, Roth is terribly young. As readers we know nothing about his past, not even his first name. His is a tabula rasa; his self is inchoate. He thinks of himself in the third person, imagines how he looks from the outside, and thinks of “Antoine” as a character from a book. Unable to grasp the consequences of not playing by the rules in his society, Roth is tricked by the unreality of his every day into thinking nothing is real at all.

April in Paris is packed with action and suspense, but there are multiple dimensions to this narrative. The poetic language and musical references attribute it a certain melody. And I did love this story’s bookishness, naturally. Here is a story in the very most storied sense, start to finish, with an ending that is brilliantly invested with hope.

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