If you think about the overall title of the triology – The Roads to Freedom – you instantly start to think about the yoke of occupation and the yearning that the French must have had to be rid nog the Germans.
But while these books touch on that the final part of the trilogy is as much about individual freedom as it is to do with the collective freedom of a nation. It focuses on two main characters, although most of those who have featured in the other two books do pop up.
The books is split into two halves with the first concentrating on Mathieu and the second on Brunet the communist activist who tried to get Mathieu to join the party in the first part of the trilogy The Age of Reason. The story starts with France defeated by the Nazi’s but because it has not yet signed the armistice the fighting continues. The soldiers in the reserve line, including Mathieu, are humiliated at not being given the chance to prove their worth against the Germans. Finally as the approaching enemy gets closer to the village where Mathieu is he decides to fight and is left on top of a church the lone gunman as the enemy wipes out the rest of the resistance.
Then the second part takes up the story of what happened to those that were taken prisoner with Brunet being picked up with thousands of others and marched into an abandoned barracks before finally being put on trains that took them to uncertainly – probably Germany. In a desperate attempt to feel that he is doing something – just like Mathieu felt – Brunet decides to try and stir up political action against not just the Germans but also the padres in the camp. He half manages to get himself noticed but fails to make any difference on his own and it is only at the end when the German’s shoot an escaping prisoner that the hate he hoped to stir rises to the surface.
Is it well written?
You feel the sense of hopelessness, shame and anger that those who have lost a conflict inevitably fell. But what it made worse is that unlike the 1914 generation they lost without having a chance to fight.
“They had counted on this war to make men of them, to give them their rights as heads of families, their share of glory as war veterans. It was to have been for them a solemn initiation, a means of freeing them from the crippling shackles of that Great war, that World war, which had stifled their youth with memories of splendour. This war of theirs was to have been greater and still more world-wide. By firing on the Jerries they were to have accomplished the ritual massacre of their fathers which marks the entry of each generation into life. But as things turned out they fired on nobody, indulged in no massacre. The whole thing had gone wrong.”
You identify with the restlessness that both Mathieu and Brunet fell and because the other characters – Daniel, Odette and Boris – are used to expand that feeling across France it is easy to sense a little bit what it means to be invaded and defeated. It is also the end of the journey for Mathieu who graduated from a seeker of freedom to the age of reason and then to a stage of realisation that it almost did not matter what he did because it was all an illusion. On the other hand Brunet continued to believe, even when the truth stared him in the face, that there was a chance he could make a difference.
Should it be read?
Of the three books this is much easier to read than the second, The Reprieve, but while it is easier to digest in terms of style – there are chapter breaks etc – the constant uncertainty, restlessness and depression does have an impact on you. That is a positive because it shows the book is working but it is not a read for people who like happy endings. It’s not really a read for people who like endings with you never finding out what became of Mathieu, if Marcelle ever had a child or what became of some of the other secondary characters. But it deserves to be read for the simple reason that it is rare to get a series of books that chart the mental search of an individual for something as elusive and idealistic as freedom.
With France defeated and the Germans closing in the search for freedom ends with guns blazing for Mathieu while for others it carries on with limited success
Version read – Penguin paperback
A review of the trilogy will follow tomorrow...