on The Travels of Daniel Ascher, a novel by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, trans. by Adriana Hunter (Other Press)

In March 1942, German SS officers and their French hosts began deporting Jews from the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris to their deaths in Eastern Europe. Before being led onto convoys by French gendarmes, Jews were held in a crumbling housing project at Drancy, a northern suburb. Today a commemorative plaque hangs there with this inscription (here translated): “From this place, which was a concentration camp from 1941 to 1944, 100,000 men, women, and children of Jewish background were interned by Hitler’s occupiers and deported to Nazi extermination camps where the vast majority met their deaths.”

DrancyCamp.jpgThe phrase “interned by Hitler’s occupiers” comprises a national lapse of memory. In the immediate post-war years, it was virtually forbidden to discuss anti-Semitism and the deportations. Only two Frenchmen were convicted of crimes against humanity, one of them in absentia. Police files were sealed for sixty years. When historian Serge Klarsfeld calculated that as many as 80,000 Jews had been deported, his claim was met with indignation, denials and disbelief. Klarsfeld responded by producing the names and documentation of 75,721 of the murdered. The celebrated 1969 Swiss documentary Le Chagrin et Le Pitié by Marcel Ophuls was banned from French screens until 1981. (Some plaques, such as the one shown here, erected in 2002, are more forthcoming about French collaboration.)

RuedesQuatre-Fils3rd.jpgBut the past persists. In 1995, Jacques Chirac became the first French leader to admit officially that the state had played an active role in killing Jews. In 2004, Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française became a French and international prize-winning best seller (she died in Auschwitz in 1942). The sensational television drama series “Un village français” premiered in 2009, following the fates of a French village and its inhabitants, including a group of Jewish resistance fighters during the Occupation. In 2010, Rose Bosch’s film La Rafle (The Round-Up) shocked audiences, and a contrite Minister of Education, Luc Chatel, vowed to make the movie available to students aged 17 and older via a new school video network.

When a new French novel comes along about Jews and the Occupation, one can read it as a barometer of where things stand. Published in France in 2013, Déborah Lévy-Bertherat’s The Travels of Daniel Ascher tells the story of Hélène Roche, a graduate student at the Institute of Archaeology in Paris. It is 1999. Her great-uncle Daniel Roche provides an apartment for her in his own building. She has known for some time that the Roche family in Auvergne took in Daniel after the Vichy sent his parents on a transport to the east. Also, as a child she was never receptive to his child-like enthusiasms and non-stop story-telling. She never read any of his famous 23 adventure stories written under the nom de plume “H.R. Sanders.” However, Daniel’s books are adored by Hélène’s new playful boyfriend Guillaume who can recite every heroic plot.

Levy-BertheratCover.jpgAs the novel proceeds, some of Daniel’s post-war life is filled in though it seems that he mainly traveled the world for years (or did he?) collecting impressions for his young adult novels. Hélène and Guillaume do some detective work to glean what little they can about Daniel and his vanished Ascher family. A mystery takes shape. Lévy-Bertherat does her best to create some suspense and suggest the resonances in Hélène’s mind as the young woman learns and recalls more. Her prose is unfussy and sometimes fluidly lyrical. But the novelist fails to cultivate the story’s shape and depth. She draws significance out of tropes that are too obvious or convenient.

Nevertheless, the strange lightness of The Travels of Daniel Ascher tells us something about how one novelist has gauged her readers’ willingness to engage with the subject. The unnamed narrator, who seems to know everything but won’t tell, seems rather coy. And the lightness, on which Lévy-Bertherat bets everything, almost succeeds in implying her moment’s state of consciousness. Consider that Daniel’s own mode of story-telling, with its harrowing escapes and ultimate victories, is a replacement narrative for his own experience. Unlike the prototypical Holocaust survivor, he emits no scent of a tragic history. For Hélène, the Occupation is raw material for an archaeologist. Daniel has deflected his experience of adversity into teen tales, and Lévy-Bertherat has packaged the Occupation as a quasi-gossamer mystery genre piece.

The Travels of Daniel Ascher expresses the generational dissipation of the story of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in France. But this may not have been Lévy-Bertherat's intention. If it was, then The Travels of Daniel Ascher isn’t sufficiently vaporous and suggestive. If it wasn’t, then the novel is too porous to carry the burden of the past.

[Published May 26, 2015. 182 pages, $22.95 hardcover]