This is my review of Au Bon Beurre Ou Dix Ans De La Vie d’UN Cremier (Folio) by Luc Dutourd.
This cynical satire reveals the opportunism and greed which explain many people's willing cooperation with the Nazis under occupation in wartime France. Homesick for Paris, and readily convinced that the Germans are "decent" people, Charles-Hubert and Julie Poissonard return to their creamery, which also sells groceries, and set about stock-piling food to sell at exorbitant prices when rationing comes into force. Industrious but ruthless, they survive a few minor setbacks like being caught watering the milk, to end the war as millionaires laden with tasteless luxuries – a baby grand pianola, stuffed stag's head, leather-bound collections of unread books together with shelves of "faux livres" to give a flavour of this. A Rubens has only been acquired because Charles-Hubert has heard that the painter's work is popular.
On the way they have performed some mean acts without admitting any fault to themselves: Julie denouces to the Nazis a customer's son who has just escaped from POW camp in Germany. She feeds her half-starved maid before the girl is required to wait on the family at dinner simply so that she will not be tempted to steal food.
This story may be a little overlong, making its point early on, and perhaps losing it's narrative pace in the middle with the digressions into the adventures of Léon Lecuyer, the earnest young man of principle who serves as a foil to the pragmatic Poissonards. Yet the reader is carried along by Dutourd's wry wit and lively literary style, as displayed in his quirky description of the excessive hoards of food almost coming alive as they age: "les saucissons se pétrifiaient…les légumes sec….émettaient un murmure incessant: le riz répondaient aux lentilles, qui dialoguaient avec les pois cassés et les fèves et tout cela fourmait une harmonie de craquement légers….une symphonie chuchotée qui accompagnait l'évocation ralentie de ce monde immobile". Yet, beneath this lyrical whimsy, there lies an acid attack on not only the shop-keepers, but the aristocrats who played the system. As one well-connected survivor observes: "Who did a noble marry in 1700? With a farmer's daughter. And in 1900? With a Jewess. Today, it's with the daughter of a dairyman. I'm keeping up with the times? Don't you want to see me a minister?" (His path greased with the dairyman's money).
These unsavoury characters manage to judge just the right time to start vilifying Hitler and supporting De Gaulle. You may hope in vain to see them get their comeuppance.
This story may be a little overlong, making its point early on, and perhaps losing it's narrative pace in the middle with the digressions into the adventures of Léon Lecuyer, the earnest young man of principle who serves as a foil to the pragmatic Poissonards.