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Conclusion: Whose War, Which War?

Colin Davis
Affiliation:
Royal Holloway, University of London
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Summary

Rien ne marchait plus dans ma tête. Plus j'essayais de comprendre, plus tout se brouillait. C'est ainsi qu'on devient fou. Ou amnésique. Je suis devenu fou.

(Delbo, Mesure de nos jours, p. 160)

This book has not attempted to tell a coherent story about the Second World War and the ways in which it has affected the lives and works of those who experienced it at first hand. No such story is available, possible or perhaps even desirable. It would involve too many elisions, obfuscations and simplifications. What is clear is that we are still in some sense post-war, in that the war remains a problematic, traumatic reference point which will not yet be silenced. The controversy around works such as Jonathan Littell's Goncourt prize-winning Les Bienveillantes (2006), which gave voice to a fictional Nazi perpetrator, and the film La Rafle (2010), which belatedly reminded French audiences of the complicity of their countrymen in genocide, demonstrates that we are dealing here with a still-unresolved past. The war continues to call for speech, representation, symbolization and interpretation. Moreover, these issues matter more than ever. As the living memory of the Second World War fades, we are left only with its half-forgotten, partly hidden traces, in texts and films which are still, I would suggest, under-interpreted. And in a Europe which is once again unsettled, we have to fear that unconfronted trauma always risks being repeated, in ever more destructive forms.

I am reminded at this point of one of the great French novels about the Second World War, Michel Tournier's Le Roi des aulnes (1970), and in particular the encounter of its protagonist, the Nazi-serving prisoner of war Abel Tiffauges, with the commander of Kaltenborn. This latter character is an aristocratic career soldier who becomes the head of a school for Nazi cannon fodder, even though he is not himself particularly favourable to the Nazi regime. In a key passage of the novel, he offers Tiffauges an apocalyptic vision of the war as the explosion of symbols:

Et tout cela est symbole, tout cela est chiffre, indiscutablement. Mais ne cherchez pas à comprendre, c'est-à-dire à trouver pour chaque signe la chose à laquelle il renvoie. Car ces symboles sont diaboles: ils ne symbolisent plus rien. Et de leur saturation naît la fin du monde. (p. 321)

Type
Chapter
Information
Traces of War
Interpreting Ethics and Trauma in Twentieth-Century French Writing
, pp. 234 - 238
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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