Saturday, December 31, 2011
61. Without Drums or Trumpets by Alec Le Vernoy
At the start of the war, Le Vernoy was a young outdoorsman, who loved the mountains. There is a brief prologue of him with some friends on a trek and then we launch into the invasion of France and Le Vernoy's crazy story. He fights briefly with the French army before the capitulation. Instead of surrendering, he continues fighting and fleeing, making his way to North Africa. There he tries desperately to join the British with a couple of insane kayaking and sailing episodes to Gibraltar. He finally succeeds but instead of getting sent to fight, he is placed by British intelligence back in North Africa where he does a bunch of spying and then sabotage missions with the local french community in occupied North Africa. I throw that off in a sentence, but this section alone is full of incredible episodes of tension and violence.
He eventually gets captured and spends time in a Tunisian prison. When Nazi rule in North Africa starts to collapse, he is shipped to Germany with a bunch of other important prisoners where he ends up in a concentration camp. The narrative here turns from the adventurous to the truly dark. No matter how many different perspectives and narratives I encounter about those concentration camps, I am still surprised once again by the incredible horror of what went down there. I guess the mind just sort of blocks it out. In Le Vernoy's case, he was one of the POWs in the camp so it gave a different perspective than from the Jews who were for the most part sent specifically to be murdered. All the other prisoners were basically being worked to death, so it wasn't much better, but it is just interesting to read about the experience from someone who actually saw families still carrying their suitcases being driven to the gas chambers, not realizing what was going to happen until the last minute. He also writes an extremely effective passage where he describes the horrific philosophy of production behind the way the camp was being run.
Aside from being incredibly resourceful, he can also speak German and was a medical student, skills which get him into slightly less deprived positions in various prisons and which also allow him to find means of escape, which he does. Most of his war, in fact, is him on the run, which leads to a lot of frustration for him, as his main goal is simply to get out and fight. He also has a lot of criticism for the majority of his own people, the french who collaborated or just remained passive. The times when he goes from door to door, desperate for a bit of help, and is categorically refused by his own people are maddening and an important reminder for us all.
As a book, the translation from the french is a bit rough (but makes it feel that much more authentic) and as a personal narrative it lacks a consistent structure. Those are minor concerns, though, as the guy's story is just so crazy and entertaining (and informative) that you can't stop turning the pages.
I was reading the end of this book while flying home. The in-seat entertainment device was playing 24 channels of broadcast television and I kept getting distracted and flipping through the channels. It was new year's eve and so we had all these countdowns and summaries of 2011. Except for the brief actual news events, it was all so much irrelevant horseshit. It just saddened me that a guy like Alec Le Vernoy, who had all of his fingernails peeled back slowly one by one because he wouldn't inform on his fellow prisoners, is mostly forgotten while our most powerful media voices spend vast resources celebrating nobodies who have done nothing. Is this what guys like m. Le Vernoy sacrificed for?