Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: For the King by Catherine Delors

All historical fiction is about today. That goes for works old and new. The old works are being experienced by contemporary readers, and the material filters through a modern mindset. Conversely, and  more to the point here, a contemporary work such as For the King by Catherine Delors was conceived in her unarguably modern mind. (Ignore the fact that this charming author is so steeped in French history she can blog about little else.) The modern writer's preoccupations and prejudices seep through. Yes, it is possible to imitate the writing style, the attitude, the point of view of a Balzac or a Stendhal (who both lived around the time of this story). But it is not possible, nor would it be desirable, for the writer to somehow unhook her intimate connections to the collective unconscious of the present day.

Delors' second novel is about a plot to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte on Christmas Eve, 1800. But in many ways it is very much about today. For one thing, its narrative structure is as familiar as a network TV series — it's a police procedural. (How about CSI: Île de la Cité?)

The reader knows who the perpetrators are from the start — so it's not a whodunnit. Most of the story is about how chief investigator Roch Miquel discovers for himself who they are and how he tracks them down. Herein lies another influence of contemporary genre fiction. In the film noir detective story, the main character's inquiry leads him progressively deeper into the corruption that pervades the big city. And in the most intensely psychological (and arguably the best) of those stories, the detective eventually discovers that he's been betrayed by "the girl" and — in the most chilling variants — he finds out to his everlasting regret that he is personally somewhat to blame for the crime itself.

I won't stretch this parallel further for fear of spilling spoilers. Roch is modern in another important sense — politically and morally he is a citizen of today's EU. His sympathies lie with the Revolution, with the same idealistic egalitarianism that shaped the American Constitution. Roch's father is a sheep herder turned tavern owner, a self-made entrepreneur, a small-business capitalist. The heavies of the story, Miquel's adversaries, are reactionary royalists (called Chouans). Although some of them profess admiration for the deposed king (who is nowhere to be found in the book), the majority of them simply hanker for their lost swaggering privileges and aristo status. They resent the new centralized government control Bonaparte is imposing on every aspect of their lives.

And then there's the practice of torturing witnesses and suspects, as problematic an interrogation technique then as it is now. Delors can't help editorializing: "Roch reported [the torture] to the Prefect, who had dismissed his concerns on the grounds that the search for information of vital importance to the safety of the Nation justified such means. Roch disagreed. Most of what could be obtained in this manner was false confessions or information that reflected what the suspect thought [the torturer] wanted to hear. Roch had argued in vain that a skillful interrogator could obtain better information without disgracing himself and the entire police."

The most compelling aspect of this story is psychological and emotional and has only the barest relationship to the facts of the criminal investigation. For reasons hinted at above, Roch the man must reexamine how he regards and treats women. He must challenge his notions of trust in and loyalty to mistresses, ladies, beggars, prostitutes, and — the girl next door.

So, as you might expect from his appearance here, tyro Roch Miquel fits the essential definition of the boychik  — a young man who has a lot to learn, especially about women.

The French have a saying: As much as things change, they remain the same.