Published covertly in Nazi-occupied France, this was a publication for the French people, a sort of “guide for la Resistance” to this country still dazed and reeling from the invasion. There were underground publications of newspapers going on, but Vercors approached a publisher to do this larger project. It is a short story, only 50 pages, but still very good and with psychological depth in its intricacies of symbolism and character interactions, as well as an inspiring greater message.
The story enfolds as two lower soldiers examine the narrator’s house. Several comings and goings later a soldier tells the man and his niece that there will be an officer staying in their house. When they meet him he is actually fluent in French and very polite. Still, neither the niece nor the narrator utter a word or even acknowledge him. This was the start of an unspoken agreement that they would continue their lives as usual as if he had never came.
One night there is a snowy-rain outside. The officer does not come in like he usually does, but after a while they hear his uneven steps in the hallway and he enters wearing civilian clothes. He warms himself by the fire and begins talking to them about himself. This is the beginning of a long, thoroughly one-sided dialogue that happens every night, where he tells them about his dreams, his loves and his philosophies. It turns out he is a composer who has loved France from afar for his whole life. He believes that the invasion will begin a great union between France and Germany and that the war will cause “the sun to rise over Europe.” He regards the niece as a metaphor for France. The silence in the house exists always.
After a time, he has the opportunity to go to Paris to witness what he thinks will be the marriage/union between the two countries. But, when he returns he no longer comes to see them. Finally he comes, this time in a uniform and utterly changed. In Paris they laughed at him and his idealism. They said there was no union between France and Germany; they were going to conquer the beast and suck out its soul like venom. They planned to destroy everything that the officer loved. But worst of all, these words came from a fellow artist, a poet who he had studied and traveled with since they were young, someone he saw as a brother.
When he comes to explain this to the narrator and his niece, he is a soldier once more and a broken man. The reader can see from his involuntary movements how he tries to hold in all of his emotions and grief. He has asked to be reassigned to Russia, a hell, but one easier than the one he is in now. As he leaves he says Adieu while looking at the niece and waits in the doorway for her response. His France breaks the silence and acknowledges him as a human being with a responding Adieu. He’s gone the next morning and the sun is paler in the sky.
Very excellent book that should be read for its quality and to enjoy in the intricacies of its symbolism and character interactions, as well as for its greater message.
The second [introduction] by Brown, explores the eloquent symbolism of silence, its politics, its aesthetics and the sensory and kinetic codes through which it is constructed, tending though to hint that the key to intelligibility lies in the biography of the author.
Michael Kelly, University of Southampton, French History Journal
(If you want to read this in English, Michael Kelly also recommends Put out the light; a translation by Cyril Connolly, London, Macillan, 1944.)
The film (2004) is very loosely based on the book. In the film the emphasis is totally on the relationship between the niece and the officer and it has switched narrators from hearing the thoughts of the uncle to following the niece around all day. It tries to encompass too much of the situation in France, deviating from the story line for long periods of time.