In a grand Paris apartment, a young girl attends gatherings regularly organized by her mother. The women talk about beauty secrets and gossip, but the mood grows dark when the past, notably World War Two, comes under coded discussion in hushed tones. Years later, the silent witness to these sessions has become a prominent historian, and with this chilling autobiographical novel she sets out to unmask enigmatic figures in and around her family. Why, she seeks to understand, did they betray their Jewish neighbors and zealously collaborate with the Nazi occupation of France, remaining for decades hence obsessive devotees of that evil lost cause.
Excerpt from The Propagandist
During the morning ritual, the mistress of ceremonies was, indubitably, my mother Lucie, resembling a ringmaster out of a Molière play. She was both the brains and the armed wing of the group, keeping the other women in check. The others couldn’t manage without her, but in return they insisted she knew her place. She found the endlessly repeated performances hammy and overblown. “Always the same faces, the same stories. I’d be better off reading a book,” she said. Sometimes I heard her sigh.
“I know her, your mother. She can’t fool me,” my aunt whispered to me dramatically, refusing to say more, as she knelt to untangle the fringe that ran along the edge of the carpet, licking her index finger and then smoothing it down with the flat of her hand.
The women spoke their own language. They needed only to utter a single word or part of a sentence for the meaning to be manifestly clear to the others, yet I always had the feeling they were hiding something from me. There were explanations of things I couldn’t grasp or understand. It was obvious they were bound by the collective memories that they conjured up, obliquely, every single day. They had a direct line to their past.
I was fascinated by the way the other women seemed to have rights over my mother, who behaved differently when she was with them—no longer a wife and mother, but one of them. I sensed there was a side to her that eluded me.