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Nazism Adds Dark Edge to This Tale of Betrayal

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“The Mistress” is nasty, brutish, short--and terrific, too. It explores the ways in which betrayal, corruption and cravenness in the political sphere--which is, in the end, a sphere of human relations--make love in so-called private life utterly impossible. Philippe Tapon’s vision is a dark one, and he has the courage never to flinch from the far-from-pretty characters he has created, from the lies they tell and from the often-unintended consequences of their actions.

Emile Bastien, a surgeon, lives with his mistress, Simone, and his two children in Paris while his wife, Marie, tends her grapes, and her wrath, on the family farm miles away. The time is 1944, when a street urchin can wear a swastika on one arm and a Free French symbol on the other. For the Nazi occupiers, “the sour, iron taste of failure” is in the air; for the French, political alliances are slipping, crumbling, re-forming in the face of new political realities: “Americans to the west, Bolsheviks to the east, English above, Resistance below, Jews everywhere.”

Emile is not exactly a collaborator and not exactly a resister; he’s a Frenchman, and he hates the Germans mainly for the humiliations they’ve imposed on France. Still, in a city where many are starving, he dines on eggs, beef and Roquefort, and he’s not above tending to the ailments of the Gestapo: Business, after all, is business. Simone, who is not only Emile’s lover but also his secretary and nurse, may or may not have more feeling for her countrymen--"trampled, sliced up, shot, deported, tortured"--but she too is determined to survive at any cost. Both lovers live within a “sarcophagus of fear.”

Two seemingly unrelated events set off the series of disasters that envelop all the characters of “The Mistress.” Emile, dragging his unsuspecting daughter in tow, drives to the country where he steals 20 ingots of gold--his wife’s entire dowry. (Marie’s punishment of her daughter for collaborating in this theft is, like so much else in this book, slyly horrifying.) And Heinrich Schrodinger, an SS major, walks into Emile’s office and demands an operation to rid him of his excruciating, bleeding ulcer.

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Schrodinger is a reptile. He pities himself for the unpleasantness of his work: “Being an SS was supposed to have been like being a knight. Instead he found himself a hangman.” He has sent his son to a concentration camp for the crime of marrying a Jew--although one suspects that the son’s real crime was to experience “that passion the father had always at such expense destroyed in himself.” He has latched onto romantic love--exemplified, alas, by Simone--as the solution to his hideously deformed life. And he is going mad.

Tapon tells the story of the ways in which these characters betray and destroy each other in swift, taut prose. There are no angels, or even good people, in this tale: Indeed, Tapon is almost Brechtian in his refusal to let the reader empathize with any character. And Brechtian in his indifference to what his characters feel or think or believe or intend. We know only what they do--for themselves and to each other.

Although it is not a thriller in any conventional sense, “The Mistress” contains two truly terrifying scenes. The first is Emile’s operation on Schrodinger, when it is not at all clear whether the doctor will save, torture or kill the executioner. The second is Schrodinger’s later, hysterically demented deathbed scene, in which the commandant, now “drowning in his own body,” demands extreme unction for what he considers his one crime. He receives it, too, from an obedient priest--who, after completing his moral duties, proceeds to steal whatever he can from the house that Schrodinger had confiscated, noting that it had previously been owned by “Jews of good taste.”

Tapon’s writing is often direct and graceful, especially in its use of similes But it is sometimes marred by a surprising, clumsy use of anachronisms. It is highly doubtful, for instance, that an SS officer would have described the Third Reich as “dysfunctional,” or that the French in 1944 used words like “nerd” and “creep.”

In the novel’s final scene, Emile’s wife and mistress square off. Neither woman loves Emile anymore, but they hate each other with a visceral passion. What each woman seeks is revenge and survival--exemplified by those 20 ingots. It would be untrue to the spirit of this book to say that the best woman wins, but the shrewder, luckier one certainly does.


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