The heroine of the Resistance may have been rising ninety, but she was still wearing racy red shoes. “Not so many years,” she said, “but a time that marked us for life.”
It was a sweltering July morning in Provence, so hot that the venue for the talk had to be moved from the Old Bakery to rows of chairs under the trees in the square. Thérèse Dumont had been part of a northern circuit, but she was well known to the sons and daughters of the southern maquis who had gathered to share their stories.
We were in the Vaucluse, a stronghold of the French Resistance during the Second World War, a country place of rolling hills and rocky outcrops. Here, the Resistance years are spoken about – to British, American and Canadian visitors in particular – with considerable pride and a sense of shared history. My father-in-law’s old friend and gardener Monsieur Charpin, sometime Mayor of Viens, used to recount tales of astonishing bravery and daring in the same way he discussed planting courgettes.
When I saw the advertisement for a talk in Viens about René Char and his wartime poetry, I knew I would be there with my notebook. It was the summer of 2012. I’d started writing a new novel the previous autumn, and then got sidetracked. It happens. You get fascinated by a subject that insinuates itself then supersedes the work in hand. This time it was a trail that started just down the road from our house. The nearby village of Céreste (left) was the hideout of the legendary Resistance leader Capitaine Alexandre – Char, in his other life. Near St-Christol on the Vaucluse plateau, there is a field called “Spitfire”, scene of secret landings and drops of arms and agents by the RAF while France was under Nazi Occupation.
I did some research and found a poignant detail in the memoir We Landed by Moonlight written by the RAF Special Operations pilot Group Captain Hugh Verity. In August 1944 a Dakota carrying key French personnel was flown into “Spitfire” in preparation for the Allied landings on the south coast. The plan was to land, drop the passengers and collect a group of escaping American airmen who had been on the run. But the Dakota was too heavy, and the makeshift runway too short. On the run-up to take-off, the undercarriage snagged on a wide strip of lavender that had been planted to disguise the length of the field from the ever-vigilant occupying authorities. Before another attempt to take off could be made, some of the US airmen had to disembark. Promises were made to come back for them the following night, but the botched operation had taken too long. The Nazis and their Vichy enforcers, the Milice, were now aware of it and took brutal reprisals. The next night, the Dakota returned but there was no Resistance reception team waiting to signal it down.
That was the spark for The Lavender Field, the middle section of The Sea Garden. The novel comprises three novellas giving separate but linked narratives of love and loss in wartime; the structure mirrors the oblique connections between underground cells, where security is paramount, and the best defence is limited knowledge of the activities of others in the organization. What ties these stories is the theme of communication, or the lack of it: coded wireless messages; torch signals; information withheld; differences in language.
I learned a great deal more that morning under the trees in Viens listening to Mme Dumont (Left, you can just see Madame Dumont’s red shoes!) and the panel of local historians, not least about the power of handing on stories verbally, of hearing and seeing those with personal connections to real events. It was touching to hear the panel speak about the RAF with enormous respect – and affection – when they couldn’t have expected anyone British to be in the audience.
The sun grew hotter and summer life went on around us unnoticed as we listened to ‘scraps of resistance’ contained in René Char’s Feuillets d’Hypnos. ‘Horrible day!’ begins the prose poem that recounts his witnessing of the SS execution of a young resistant ‘B’ (Roger Bernard). Char, lying unseen in the heights above Céreste, could have shot the Germans and saved Bernard. But Char did not shoot, despite the fact that the boy was a protégé of his. He knew that if he did, reprisals would be unleashed on the village. An ordinary village that he knew to be extraordinary, where he was protected by as much by brave neighbours as by the electric wire round his safe house (right) that created warning static on a radio if anyone approached.
The Gestapo was ruthless. In pretty St-Saturnin d’Apt, a young mother was murdered in front of her children one afternoon in response to some act of resistance unrelated to her family. Other stories followed. It was clear that the dramatic Luberon valley was seeded with dark landmarks unknown to seasonal tourists. But the locals know why there is a Place Roger Bernard in Viens, and the site of the ancient mulberry where he fell.
It was important to keep the stories alive, someone said. One man said he was a teacher; his father had been in the maquis. His students often knew family stories about the war, but the facts didn’t always add up. He was concerned that it wasn’t taught as history in schools. “Now the memories are disappearing. We have to do everything we can to record them.” Everyone nodded vigorously in agreement.
A small elderly woman got to her feet. The proceedings were almost over. “I’m very glad to have had the chance to listen this morning,” she said. “You are all right. We must never forget. I know, because I am from St-Saturnin. I was one of the children who saw our mother shot in front of us.” There was nothing more to be said. We all left in tears.
Deborah Lawrenson, The Sea Garden (Orion, London, 2014) 978-1409146186, paperback, 320 pages.
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