Diary of the Dark Years 1940 – 1944
Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris
By Jean Guehenno
Translated & Annotated by David Ball
Oxford University Press – £19.99
”The new masters are organising the silence, proud of their lost battles. But there is silence, and silence. Everyone remains the sole master in the silence of his heart.”
Eloquently written with a clear abundance of warranted anger and claustrophobic frustration, Diary of the Dark Years 1940 – 1944 – Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris by Jean Guehenno (Translated and Annotated by David Ball), is a first hand account of how to remain silent within the oft terrifying parameters of potentially terrifying, suffocating, Occupation.
As the above quote from the opening chapter ‘1940’ makes clear, the entire population of Paris – and eventually France as a whole – was condemned to live with(in) a sometimes complicit and overtly fragmented conscience, for the best part of five years.
So when the country’s long-awaited liberation during the autumn of 1944 finally arrived, it really ought come as no surprise that huge segments of the French populace were both steeped and drenched within a vast torrent of wretched recrimination. Much of which was perhaps bound to happen. Much to the chagrin of the left-wing but not communist, devoutly anti-Fascist cultural, political critic, Guehenno; who, throughout most of these 272 pages, rightly addresses what (to his mind at least) really should have been uncompromisingly averted.
Indeed, as the overtly grounded writing(s) herein substantiate, Guehenno remained true to both his own conscience and every fibre of what he considered it meant to be French.
Although mightily ashamed of Vichy and everything it horribly, piously stood for, the French intellectual; unlike so many other writers of his era, adamantly refused to publish under the censorship regime of Nazi-occupied France.
As such, these journals remain staunchly translucent and courageous from beginning to end. For instance, in the aforementioned opening chapter, ‘1940,’ he writes: ”Stupidity and hypocrisy reign triumphant – the Moral Order, the virtue of the rich. The bourgeois ladies are rejoicing. In the market, they won’t have to compete for chickens with women in house dresses anymore. At last, everyone will be able to eat according to his rank.,” while in the third chapter (‘1942’), he persuasively writes: ”Night falling, so gentle, so beautiful. The stars are rising, millions of worlds between which we are lost like a speck of dust in the folds of a coat. I listen to the gurgling of the fountain. It is gurgling about eternity. How can one imagine that tide of fire washing over the other end of Europe near Rostov at this very moment, and the frightful slaughter? How can we think that we are personally concerned by it? That people are dying for us at this very moment?”
To a certain degree, Diary of the Dark Years could be construed as a book of internal hope.
Admittedly, there will no doubt be many who might well deem it a little too inexorable for its own good. But, there is no denying its ideological, if not historical logic. As Professor of Modern French History at the Queen Mary University of London, Julian Jackson has since stated: This document is a superb source which has long been used by historians of the period. Its translation into English is extremely welcome. Guehenno’s judgements on his fellow writers are often implacable and his observations on daily life in a city under Occupation have lost none of their freshness and interest over half a century later.”
This book may well traverse a cloyingly dark period of relatively recent French history; yet it does so with a literary beating heart not often found. For this reason alone, Guehenno’s meticulous documentation is a very worthwhile, and it has to be said, vibrant read.