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The Mercy RoomReview - The Mercy Room
A Novel
by Gilles Rozier
Little, Brown, 2006
Review by Tony O'Brien
Jul 11th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 28)

In wartime France a language teacher is enlisted as a translator by the Gestapo. Knowing that to refuse is to risk death, the teacher agrees, committing the first of the ethical compromises that drive the narrative of The Mercy Room by Gilles Rozier. Gaining some redemption by rescuing Herman, a Jewish prisoner, the narrator brings him home and hides him in the cellar. There, Herman is fed and protected for the remaining years of the war. Fraught with danger as this act is, it is by no means selfless. The narrator is motivated, at least in part, by an erotic attraction, later consummated on the dusty floor of the cellar. We never learn the name or the gender of the narrator, creating a sustained sense of intrigue which overlays the moral themes of the novel. The drama unfolds as a series of deceits; some small, some large, all calling into question any notion of an essentially moral human nature. Set against the background of the Holocaust, Rozier shows how members of one family make invidious choices under extreme conditions, suggesting, perhaps, that the absence of morality inherent in atrocities such as genocide has its basis in the capacity of ordinary people to cave in under pressure.

The Mercy Room is set in a part of France some way from its western border. The narrator's family consists of the mother and a licentious younger sister, Anne. The father of the household has been transported to rural Germany, although he maintains a strongly principled presence. Anne, a widow, carries on a torrid affair with Volker, a detested figure who visits twice daily to shake the chandeliers under Anne's room with the vigorous thrusts of his SS hips. Mother is silent and watchful. Her response to Anne's orgasmic moans is to scrub the pots with greater gusto. The narrator loves German literature to the exclusion of almost everything else. This love is imbued with an erotic quality, first in the narrator's attraction to a fellow student Jans-Joachim, and later in the love felt for Herman. It is not a love that is shared with the narrator's spouse. The two share a celibate relationship, as the narrator is too much in love with books to physically love another human being. It is only with his captive partner that the narrator can yield to the allure of sex. Graphic sexual scenes are rendered so as to maintain the secret of the narrator's gender. As the allied advance draws closer the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion, and just as the invading Germans face the consequences of their collective and individual actions, the liberation is a time of reckoning for the major characters.

Gilles writes in clear, direct prose, and the narrative style of the book is uncomplicated. In describing the assassination of Anne's husband he tells us: "A car drew up outside the graden gate. A man with his face exposed produced a gun. Tac-a-tac-a-tac. He fired at the couple. He hit the husband right in the head and missed my sister, but it was too late to try again." Rozier also brings apparently minor events to life with a minimum of fuss, and with absorbing clarity. The aged narrator, listening to a CD of music first enjoyed with Hans-Joachim, laments the 'pasteurized' nature of the digital format, pleading "couldn't we have a crackling version?". Rozier can also write lyrically, as he does in borrowing from poet Heinrich Heine: "I wanted the fairest cradle of my sorrows, something authentic, the fairest tombstone of my peace."

The novel contains are allusions suggesting both the artificiality and durability of differences between languages, politics, ethnicities and genders, and between war and peace. In the main, these are structural devices that give the novel its complexity, they are not the sly contrivance of a knowing author teasing his readers with obscure references. However the secrecy surrounding the narrator's gender is puzzling, to say nothing of the trouble caused to a reviewer deprived of a gendered pronoun. There are hints, for example in the confession (p. 101) that "I am still innocent of the writings of Oscar Wilde" (is this the love that dare not speak its name?) and in the several references to fellatio, that might lead a reader towards a conclusion. Hints, but no unequivocal revelation. I found myself reading the narrator as male, simply for the lack of the explicitly female responses I would expect to see in a female protagonist. The story is, after all, written in the first person, and it is only the author, not the narrator who has an interest in concealing the narrator's gender.

If the overall message of the novel is that the common certainties of the war are more gray than black and white, Rozier is less circumspect when it comes to a final reflection on the moral culpability of the Gestapo. Volker's children

"wouldn't know that their father had been part of the German elite, the master race, good family men, model husbands who executed thousands of Jews in the back of the neck as their victims stood on the edge of a pit, heroes who set fire to churches after shutting the whole population of a village inside them, thus ensuring a radiant future for their children in a world washed clean, and then relaxed over a nice cold beer when they got home after along day's work." (p. 133).

And so on. At this point the language loses its restraint, and the novel becomes rather didactic. Thankfully there are few sections like this, and they come at the end of the book. 

The British edition is more honestly titled "Love without resistance", (the original French is Un amour sans résistance) and that seems in keeping with Rozier's persistent use of double images. The narrator's wife is given the name "Jude": apparently the "Claude" of the British edition was considered too ambiguous. But the Jewish name means that the relationship with Herman has more competition than the author provides, although there is no other indication that the spouse is Jewish. Despite the author's cleverness in concealing the gender of the narrator, the cover illustration shows a man and woman embracing. This can only be the narrator and Herman; an interpretation not allowed by the text as narrator and spouse never hold each other in a naked embrace. Any anxieties about homosexuality are nicely tidied away by the publisher. (A French edition shows a male undressing).

The Mercy Room is a postmodern war novel in that the heroes are not heroic, and war confers uncertainty rather than certainty. Rozier creates a psychologically and emotionally complex plot. By invoking the spirit of Mann, Kafka, Rilke and others he creates high literary expectations and although the book does not really deliver on this promise, that was always going to be a hard task for a first novel. But the astute psychological observations, the matter of fact disruption of the moral absolutes of war, and the unadorned, lucid prose of this novel are more than adequate compensation.

 

© 2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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