The book is a beautiful and compelling mystery/ghost story/historic account about Paris and her many ghosts.
At a recent book club meeting, we hosted the first time novelist and long-time writer, Mamta Chaudhry, who shared some of her and her craft’s secrets.
Centered on a Parisian couple, of differing ages and classes, who find love despite the many obstacles (including adultery and family tragedy from WWII), their relation and quest, which becomes joint, only resolve after death. Indeed, Sylvie needs to pass through nearly suicidal mourning and the help of her lover’s ghost for resolution to be found. The strongest narrative voice is that of Julien, the deceased shrink; while the main protagonist is Sylvie, a music teacher and his outwardly timid partner of several decades, whose lion heartedness carries the narrative’s dramatic thrust.
The book, clearly, is an extended meditation on how the past infiltrates the present, not only for the couple and Julien’s family’s tragic history, but for the city of Paris. It is told in a captivating episodic style of interweaving narrative vignettes, which develop like a piano sonata. Indeed, Ms. Chaudhry once was a program director for Southern Florida’s classical music station, now off the air.
The Paris here is depicted during the deep ambivalence of the bicentennial, in 1989, celebrating her blood-flooding revolution. In parallel, the city reckons with its sordid past during wartime occupation, the Vichy government, and its cooperation with the Nazis to round up French Jews and send them to their deaths – including Julien’s young sister and nieces.
Julien’s lifelong (and afterdeath) quest comes from the possibility that one niece, a young girl at the time, was never killed, as her name at the death camps was never recorded.
Though a series of turns and ghostly interventions, the lost child is found, now a suburban woman who only knew her original name and that her saving grace farmer parents were adoptive. Only in the novel’s final chapter, during a soiree with family, neighbors, and a visiting American couple, does finality come, even for Julien’s ghost.
The vignettes are beautifully wrought and tonally consistent. Sylvie herself says “in music, at least, a transition isn’t like closing a door but crossing a bridge.” (Understandably, crossing bridges is a constant leitmotiv, along with the riverine bateaus-mouche whose searching lights sweep out of the dark and catch various protagonists.)
Yet, like the bateau mouche, the novel inhabits a darkling and somber stage – and history. During the bicentennial, protesters throw 600 decapitated heads into the Seine, which Julien’s ghost finds appropriate. The same vignette, though beautifully wrought, ends with the searchlight theme and a near-constant basso profundo:
“Against the unending march-past of history, each individual life seems but a beam from a lighthouse, a brief dazzling illumination, and then darkness once more.” [p.198]
Indeed, I found the dark end notes of so many vignettes – perhaps inevitably when your main narrator is a disgruntled spirit – to be repetitive, the music at times predictable.
The novel’s lightest notes come most often when the conventional narrative dips into the stream-of-conscience of minor, usually bourgeoisie, characters.
The concierge, for example, upon encountering a visiting American couple, ruminates:
“Everything about the Americans shines, their teeth, their nails, their skin; do they scub themselves daily with pumice? … No wonder they all come to Paris on holiday, what is there for them to do at home, nothing but autoroutes everywhere and wild creatures running loose on the streets…” [p.10]
Then, after much somberness, the tale ends with some irrepressible French delight in shared meals. Our phantasm narrator, unable to physically participate, has the novel’s last words. In a beautiful last image, he recalls when Notre Dame’s bells, silent during the Occupation, with liberation peal out:
“Then the cathedral’s deep-voiced bell, which has had over the centuries intoned the coronation of kings and the end of wars, fell silent at last, its reverberating echo lingering in the air like a doubt resolved, announcing to the world, I AM.”
I asked Ms.Chaudhry about divine – as opposed to ghostly – intervention, and she admitted the novel mostly lacks any references to God. (The I AM is the King James translators’ rendition of YHWY, the God of Israel, and is also mentioned during the novel as written over the entrance lintel of the cathedral.) She admitted she wished to end the novel on a more positive note. Indeed, Julien’s very last wish is that “one day Sylvie will push open that curtained door to come to me, and despite all that I have known, at the sight of her I will finally believe losses are restored and sorrows end.”
This is a reference to the end of Shakespeare’s 30th sonnet, earlier presented as one of the clues to find the missing niece:
But if the while I think of thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.
Ms. Chaudhry, during our book club, granted that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, which relegates the ghost narrator as a literary device. Too bad. The book’s potential spiritual dimension – after all, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a meditation on God’s character by a Holocaust survivor and one the great spiritual statements to come out of the war – seems shortchanged, as unresolved as the prior family mystery. So, without any clarity on what exact realm ghosts inhabit, the introduction of I AM appears an afterthought.
Perhaps the novel was already too heavily weighted to elucidate its spiritual side. The theme of the past overwhelming the present is also compared, after all, to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (the former title in English taken from the 30th sonnet’s second line) and dwells more with the present’s potential and free will. Similar to how Proust’s masterpiece starts with the consumption of a madeleine, and ends with the narrator consumed by the madeleine itself (of never ending memories), here the narrative appears nearly consumed by Paris itself, and its dark, deep Seine.
Overall, it appears as if the author’s lifetime of writing (articles mostly, with two unpublished novels prior to this one’s getting “picked up”) lead to such a brilliant rendering of such an evocative ghost story.
(She mentioned that her prior manuscripts were about India and Miami. What a pity, given the felicity of her writing, that she has not had the courage to publish them non-traditionally.)
Furthermore, while Ms. Chaudhry spends part of the year in Miami (the city of light) and another part in Paris (the city of dark), she admitted to no Jewish family or special connections. This speaks of her amazing empathetic and imaginative powers, to create a tale whose emotional black hole is the Holocaust. (One club member made a connection: Ms. Chaudhry, who personally recalls the violent partitioning of Pakistan from India, is able to treat the tragic near-extermination of Europe’s Jewry with much heart.)
A final pet peeve: Julien’s ghost feels compelled to mention his socialist bona fides. Why? What do politics have to do with the story? I can only guess that the author felt the need to signal to critics and readers alike that she, too, is a bien pensant. A pity. But then, during these untethered days, perhaps a touching Holocaust tale needs to be partially sanitized, from being too sympathetic with Jews (or Israel), which can get you into a heap of trouble from the up and coming. Are we already forgetting the past all over again, to our peril?