Tag Archives: occupation

Rebel Streets: A Novel of the Irish Troubles by Tom Molloy

If I carried away one thing from Tom Molloy’s novel Rebel Streets, then it’s the idea that an Occupation is a great place for a psycho to hang out for, to quote Nabokov, a “wunderbar time.” This might seem a strange conclusion to come to, but the novel illustrates how, under cover if you will, of the auspices of an Occupation, police intimidation, torture, ambushes, civilian casualties as collateral damage and murder are just some of the crimes that routinely take place while legality and conventional morality go out the window.  The ‘messiness’ and spillage of an Occupation ensures that no one stays neutral and that only the soldiers–the ones that survive–go home with or without a wooden box, but for those who endure under an Occupation, life is hell on earth.

Set during Northern Ireland during The Troubles, this short novel (232 pages) which is a quick, intense and sometimes brutal read, is essentially the story of Jimmy, a young IRA member who, when the novel begins, is under torture designed to make him break. As the torture is ramped up, Jimmy finally breaks into a blubbering mess, and then once turned, he’s released back to his compatriots with the stipulation that he report back with valuable information to his handler, RUC Special Branch Chief Detective Ian MacDonald. To make Jimmy’s degradation complete, MacDonald, an experienced interrogator who oversees Jimmy’s torture and plays the ‘good cop Saviour,’ insists on paying Jimmy a “Judas” Wage in exchange for information. Any reluctance on Jimmy’s part to betray his friends results in MacDonald threatening Jimmy’s girlfriend, Michaela.

Into the maelstrom arrives a mal-adjusted American, known in Vietnam as Monk, whose failure to adjust back into the humdrum post-conflict existence has led him to Ireland where he intends to volunteer his unique skills to the IRA as a sniper. Known simply as ‘Yank’ by the IRA members, Monk sees Belfast as Tet “without the Vietcong.” Slipping around buildings and rooftops, picking off British soldiers, Monk feels that he’s back in the jungles of Vietnam, dodging booby traps and exhilarated by the thrill of slaughtering the enemy.

Interestingly, the British soldiers and the SAS stay firmly in the background with the attention given instead to a handful of Irish characters, Catholic and Protestant, who exist on both sides of the divide. Rebel Streets might have benefitted from some further character development, but perhaps it’s intentional on the author’s part to leave his characters sketchy–they are, after all, trapped in the roles carved for them by fate, religion, birth and class, and as such they play out their parts occasionally with a smatter of cliché or heavy-handedness. We’re told for example, in one simple paragraph, about Monk’s reception upon returning home from Vietnam:

They explained he had been a dupe, a pawn, damaged goods, a war criminal, a murderer, he hated his daddy or his mommy. They explained he was afraid of women, of intimacy, of being homosexual, of being a rapist, of being castrated. He should have gone to Canada, or jail, or grad school, or taught school.

It’s just too pat, and it doesn’t work.

On the other hand, the various difficult relationships between the Irish characters all work well. It’s easy to imagine Jimmy’s moral dilemma even if we aren’t in his shoes, and the author does an excellent job of showing how his characters fill their social roles and deliberately don’t look too deeply into the moral consequences of their actions.  MacDonald, for example, “had become someone he would have shrunk from a month before.” Similarly, Jimmy finds himself ratting out his fellow IRA members, and every time he does, he hates himself more but is unable to see a way out of the trap that’s descended on his life.

Rebel Streets also gives us a glimpse into the private lives of the main characters, so we see RUC Special Branch Chief Detective Ian MacDonald going home at night after a hard day of torture. There’s a silent question raised in these scenes. How do you glide from directing scenes of torture to playing with your small children? There  is no answer to the question, of course, but MacDonald seems to know that he’s a man living on borrowed time, and proof of that is the way he’s established a code with his wife that indicates it’s safe to go indoors. Handling Jimmy is a dangerous part of MacDonald’s job, and both men risk their lives with each meeting:

He’s getting nervous sitting here, though Jimmy. It was true. Because one thing the lawman and the guerilla shared was a dread of being seen together. Death had pulled up a chair at this meeting. And death would be present at every one of their rendezvous. And like a true whore, death would be happy to leave with either one, or both of them.

While the main characters are on the front lines of the conflict, some secondary characters try to remain uninvolved, but this is seen as largely an exercise in futility. There are a couple of spots when those who try to remain neutral find themselves dragged into the conflict, and when they emerge on the other side of the experience, they are all turned by the event into new recruits for the IRA.

The biggest silent question Rebel Streets asks is Do the ends justify the means?– a fundamental question which always rears its head in wartime. Given the way that the violence Molloy depicts on the streets of Belfast also acts as a splendid cover for various psychopathic crimes, I’d argue that the novel’s stance–which shows the consequences of an ends-justifies-the-means policy (and its endorsement of violence) illustrates that no one emerges unscathed from the conflict. While Monk hunts British soldiers, “there’s a trap door [had] opened to bottomless black space” in the form of the Butcher gang–a group of psychos who hunt, torture and kill Catholics for sport. The crimes are so horrific that there are rumours that the crimes are not committed by humans but by Vampires. The Butcher Gang ( modelled on the Shankill Butchers?) operate undetected and with the justification of the ongoing sectarian violence, but while they operate on the far end of the sadistic spectrum, are they really any different from the other characters who commit acts of violence? Does enjoying torturing a human being make the act itself worse? And this brings us to the absurdity of: In other words is it ok to torture people as long as you don’t enjoy it? While Rebel Streets is a story of the choices made by a young man in a hopeless situation, the novel, for this reader, raised some interesting questions about the morality of violence. When engaged in a war against the enemy, how much can be justified? Is there a cut off point when actions become unacceptable? We would, no doubt, all agree that the Butcher Gang are criminal but under what circumstances do slaughter, bombing, torture and assassination become ok?  Molloy argues that the die-hard idealists mingle with the pyschopaths on a slippery moral slope, and at the end of the day, it’s a judgement call to peel them apart.

Tom Molloy was a freelance journalist and covered The Troubles. According to the blurb on the back cover, he was sent, at one point, to “the infamous Castlereagh detention center” where Rebel Streets begins.

Review copy

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Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Occupied Paris by David King

The soldier remembered one conversation about the morality of theft, Petiot arguing that it was perfectly natural:

 “How do you think that the great fortunes and colonies have been made? By theft, war, and conquest.”

“Then morality does not exist?”

“No,” Petiot answered, “it is the law of the jungle, always. Morality has been created for those who possess so that you do not retake the things gained from their own rapines.”

A few years ago, I came across the French film Doctor Petiot. I’d never heard of this man before, but after watching the film, I knew I’d never forget him. I also vowed that one day I’d read a non-fiction account of Petiot and his crimes. Well ‘one day’ arrived recently with the publication of David King’s well-researched book, Death in the City of Light.

Death in the City of Light begins on March 11, 1944 with a fire at a house located at 21 Rue Le Soeur. To the numerous bystanders it appeared as though the house’s chimney was on fire. The fire department arrived on the scene, broke in and discovered a slaughter house with dismembered body parts strewn about the floor. But this was nothing compared to the contents of the basement: personal items which clearly belonged to dozens of people, jars filled with human genitals, a lime pit which contained even more body parts, and an ad-hoc surgery area for dismemberment, scalping, and the removal of internal organs. Obviously French police had a serial killer on their hands. Or did they?

Although it seems fairly clear-cut that the human remains found at the house at La Rue de Soeur were the result of a maniac, things immediately became murky. The house belonged to French physician, Marcel Petiot, a collector of fine art, a very wealthy man who also had a reputation for helping the poor and drug addicts. Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu of the Homicide Squad was in charge of the case (for Simenon fans, Massu served as inspiration for Inspector Maigret), and initially he suspected that the police had stumbled on a house used by the Gestapo. The La Soeur house was just around the corner from a Gestapo building and this combined with the flagrant brutality and sheer number of the victims made Gestapo involvement likely:

A swastika had flown over the building across from Petiot’s property. The garage at No. 22 had been appropriated by Albert Speer’s Organization Todt, a vast supply company that supervised German construction projects in Occupied Europe.

If the murders at Petiot’s house had indeed been committed by the Gestapo, this created a very delicate situation for Massu since “the French police, of course, had no authority over the Gestapo or any of its activities.” I’ve often thought that wartime creates a fertile opportunity to mask other crimes, and the possibilities expands exponentially with the idea of an occupation. The author takes the time to clarify both Massu’s uncertainty and the chaos of the times–people were disappearing daily. Some were swallowed up by prison, others were tortured and tossed out dead somewhere, and still others were shipped off to concentration camps. Massu’s initial feeling that Petiot’s building was a Gestapo torture house did not pan out, however, for a couple of reasons. Massu was not warned off of the investigation by the Gestapo, and there were no Gestapo personnel on site when the grisly discovery was made. Moreover, shortly after the fire began, a mystery man appeared on a bicycle. Grabbing the attention of the patrolmen, the mystery man said that the corpses inside the house “are the bodies of Germans and traitors to our country.” 

As Massu tries to capture Petiot and identify some of the remains in the La Soeur house, the question of whether or not Petiot was indeed an agent of the Gestapo or a member of the Resistance emerges repeatedly. Author David King takes both possible scenarios and deconstructs the myths which surround both stories. Tracing Petiot’s chequered career, a portrait of Petiot begins to emerge–a troubled childhood, “signs of imbalance,” various stays in mental asylums, a political career fraught with scandal, kleptomania and corruption, and also various charges that he supplied a legion of drug addicts with a steady supply. And then there are the many instances of people disappearing when they stood in Petiot’s way….

Author David King follows Massu’s investigation as he tries to discover just who Petiot really was, and the investigation, naturally, in the absence of the culprit, expands into the identity of the victims. Evidence mounts that Petiot claimed to run an underground railroad for wealthy Jews who were attempting to escape the Nazis, but the bones in the basement argue that these travellers arrived at Petiot’s home but did not leave. The case was further complicated by the fact that Petiot had been arrested and held by the Gestapo for a considerable number of months, and also by the fact that the Gestapo had tried to infiltrate the underground escape route by sending a young Jewish man, whose freedom had been bought by his family through bribes, into Petiot’s operation. Naturally he disappeared. King also throughly investigates Petiot’s possible ties to the Gestapo and also his relationship with the Carlingue. It’s quite a task to unravel all the possibilities here, but King does his job masterfully–tying in Petiot with the darkest segments of the Paris underworld.

While I throughly enjoyed the visually stunning film Dr. Petiot, the complexities of this case were largely absent, and the film portrayed Petiot as a maniac, who treated his patients for free, while luring wealthy Jews to their doom. Death in the City of Light makes it clear that Petiot, a dangerous chameleon, did not have a philanthropic bone in his sick little body, and that so-called free treatment was just a way of embezzling the state. Furthermore, the book explores the intricacies of Petiot’s relationship with Henri Lafont and the Carlingue, and this link certainly explains just why Petiot operated so freely for so long.  A large portion of the book concentrates on Petiot’s trial, and at this point, Petiot, who’d managed to hide some of his egomaniacal tendencies, went wild in the spotlight–even making anti-semitic slips at some points. The trial turned into a media and social event with many spectators enjoying Petiot’s performance, and the testimony was spiced up considerably by the appearance of Rudolphina Kahan who “looked like a spy on the Orient Express.” Petiot seemed to nurse a crush on this woman who served as one of his many scouts. Petiot’s show-off performance was reminiscent of the trial of Lacenaire, and there are indeed some similarities between the two men–although Petiot’s murderous rampage far exceeded Lacenaire’s.

The film portayed Petiot as a ghoulish figure who rode his bicycle through the streets of Paris at night, and physically the dark rings under Petiot’s eyes reminded me of Cesare from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I was delighted to see this same connection made in the book by a journalist who attended the trial. Death in the City of Light includes many photographs, and Petiot really looks like a nut-job.

There are several names in the book: Adrian the Basque, Jo the Boxer, Henri Lafont, Pierre Bony, Francois the Corsican, Zé. I’m still looking for a book (in English) on the subject of the Carlingue, so if anyone knows a source, please let me know.

(my copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on my kindle)

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Dirty Snow by Simenon

I’m glad I read Simenon’s Three Crimes and Patrick Marnham’s excellent biography of the author  before arriving at Dirty Snow. That’s not to say that you can’t read Dirty Snow on its own merit, but I arrived at the novel forearmed, and, as it turns out, forewarned.

Dirty Snow is the bleakest, darkest Simenon I’ve read so far. I’m not keeping count of how many I’ve read from this author’s dizzying body of work. If you’ve read any of my other posts on Simenon, you know that I’m trying to read my way through his Romans Durs. If I ever manage that, I’ll move on to the Maigret novels, but for now, I’m sticking to the Romans Durs–the so-called Hard Novels. This is no small task as Simenon’s biographer, Marnham even admits that there’s no firm count of Simenon’s books, but it’s fairly safe to say “He had written 193 novels under his own name and over 200 under eighteen pseudonyms.” I’ve read other counts that put Simenon’s novels (the ones he put his own name on) at around 250.

The German occupation of Belgium during WWI was a morally corrupting experience for Simenon and that sense seeps through his autobiographical novel Three Crimes. In this novel, we see a young Simenon running around with a gang of lowlifes and hanging out with an unsavoury crowd. Hyacinthe Danse, a bookseller who coerced underage girls into sex acts that took place at the back of his shop, was one of two of Simenon’s acquaintances who later turned to murder. Three Crimes gives the reader the sense that during the occupation, ‘normal’ rules of behaviour were suspended or warped, so we see ‘ordinary’ people committing crimes, and yet what are ‘crimes’ during a period of occupation? Was it a crime to rob or kill German soldiers? Well the answer to that depends on who you are talking to. Three Crimes effectively recreates a morally muddied period; it’s a marvellous novel, though not Simenon’s best.

Patrick Marnham’s biography explores just why Simenon felt that he was permanently marked by the occupation. Simenon’s mother, for example, rented rooms to lodgers, but when the source dried up during the occupation, she rented to Germans. The biography also details how Simenon & his mother smuggled food using a system in which Simenon turned on an annoying temper tantrum so that German soldiers wouldn’t search them. It’s clear that as a teenager Simenon absorbed the fact that morality was a matter of expediency. 

As an author, one of Simenon’s techniques (if that’s an appropriate word) was to use life experiences and then leap out from that point into fiction. So it’s no surprise that Dirty Snow is the story of a teenager during the WWII occupation.

The protagonist of the story is nineteen-year-old Frank Friedmaier. When the novel begins, Frank is a petty crook, a bully, and a pimp. Not that he’s reached these lofty heights on his own accord; his mother runs a prostitute or two out of their small apartment– an operation too smalltime a concern to be called a whorehouse. Frank picks up a girl, usually hungry and poor, lures her back to the apartment where she starts servicing a steady stream of male customers. If the mother-son team are on a roll, they will keep two girls–one of whom also cleans the apartment. Since the Friedmaiers don’t exactly have a stable of women, they need a frequent turnover so that the male customers don’t get bored. For this reason, girls are only kept for a few weeks before they are turfed out.  Frank notices that the girls become increasingly sloppy the longer they stay in the apartment:

It was always that way at first. They had to be tamed. In the beginning they didn’t touch a thing. They looked at a piece of sugar as though it was something precious. It was the same with the milk, with everything. And after a certain time they had to be sent away because they stole from the cupboards. Although, granted, they would have been sent away in any case.

Frank has nothing but contempt for the weak, the needy or the fearful, and since he’s surrounded by people who live in fear of being snatched up by the Germans, he grows to despise everyone around him:

From the very onset of the present situation–and he had been barely fifteen at the time–Frank had felt contempt for abject poverty and for those who submitted to it. It amounted to a revulsion, a sort of disgust, even for the girls, thin and pale, who came to his mother’s and threw themselves on their food. Some of them would weep with emotion, fill their plates, and then be unable to eat. 

The road where the streetcar ran was black and white, and the snow on it was filthier than anywhere else. As far as the eye could see it was transected by the streetcar rails, black and shining, curving together where the two lines met. The sky was low and not too bright, with a luminosity more depressing than any uniform gray. That whiteness, glaring, translucent, had something menacing about it, something absolute and eternal. Under it, colors became hard and mean, the brown or the dirty yellow of the houses, for example or the dark red of the streetcar that seemed to float in the air. And opposite Kamp’s , in front of the tripe seller’s, stretched a long ugly line of people waiting, the women in shawls and the little girls with their skinny legs stamping their wooden soles on the pavement, trying to keep warm.

When the novel begins, Frank has ‘lost’ his virginity (I loathe that phrase) and now contemplates “another loss of virginity,” and that translates to committing a murder. Frank lives in a world of women–women he can bully and rape without compunction, and as a result, he’s grown into a revolting little thug. He hangs out at Timo’s bar, a place full of lowlifes and criminals, and there he listens to stories of murder and rape. An early quote sets the tone for the novel; this is a society in which the old rules don’t apply, and people can commit crimes in new ways:

Everybody at Timo’s had killed at least one man–in the war or wherever. Perhaps by informing on someone, which was the simplest way. You didn’t even have to sign your name.

Frank’s role model is an older man named Kromer–a criminal who repeatedly brags about a woman he murdered. Kromer’s tales convince Frank that he needs to murder a man, and to Frank murder is the next necessary step in his life.

Frank commits his murder, and the crime leads to more depravity. With each incident, Frank appears to grow more calloused–even savagely betraying a young girl who lives in his apartment building. It’s as though he pushes through the limits of morality and feeling through his actions.

Dirty Snow is a splendid book; I’ll go as far as to say a masterpiece, but at the same time this is not a novel for everyone. It’s grim reading, dark and full of pure evil at some points. Frank is a petty, puffed up little bully who’s far too big for his boots. But it should be remembered that Frank is tough from bullying his mother and the starving girls he lures to his apartment. While he thinks he knows everything (and he is not unintelligent) in many ways, he is still a callow youth with no idea how things work. As a result he’s incautious.

At one point, Timo, the owner of the bar warns Frank not to flash his money around, and he tells the story of a German colonel, who after too much drink, became careless and allowed two women to pass his papers back and forth:

“And just then I saw a guy get up, someone I hadn’t even noticed, just an ordinary-looking guy, a civilian, like anybody you’d see in the street. He wasn’t even well dressed. He went over to the table and the colonel looked at him sort of startled, but still trying to smile. The other man said just one word, and I tell you, that officer got right up and stood at attention. He took his wallet from the women. He paid his check. You could see the starch go right out of him. He left the women there, without a word of explanation, and went out with the civilian.”

“What’s that got to do with me?” Frank mumbled.

“The next day he was seen at the station, headed for an unknown destination. That’s what I mean. Some of them seem powerful, and maybe for the moment they are. But they’re never–and don’t forget it–as powerful as they pretend, because no matter how powerful they are, there are always others who are more powerful still. And they’re the ones you never hear about.”

This is a story of moral degradation, but it is also a story of redemption. While Simenon glides through this complex spectrum, questions lurk beneath the surface. How much, for example, does Frank’s environment contribute to his corruption?When Frank shows incredible courage, has he become a ‘better’ person or is he merely unconcerned about his fate? Is his lack of concern about his life a continuation of the blunting of his emotions, or does Frank simply not want to become one of the weak he despises so much?

On a final note, I’ve always thought that an occupation would offer additional opportunities for criminals. I’m thinking of Doctor Petiot here. This translates to an interest in the activities of The Gang des Tractions Avant, The Bony-Lafont Gang, and especially Abel Danos (Le Mammouth), so if you know any good books on these subjects, recommend ’em.

Dirty Snow is yet another marvellous reprint from New York Review Books Classics. Translated by Marc Romano and Louise Varèse.

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