Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo. Vintage paperback,2019. First published in hardback by Hutchinson, 2018
A central theme in this novel is the way the past seeps, as through a ‘semi-permeable membrane’, into the present. The Paris of 2006, where the main action is set, is haunted by the past: in the canonised historical figures and places whose names are commemorated in the names of Métro stations, squares, streets and so on; and more poignantly in the ordinary people who walk those modern streets and squares in the footsteps, as it were, of their antecedents.
This is most movingly apparent in the audio files accessed from an archive by one of the two central characters (their voices narrate the chapters in a kind of counterpoint). Hannah is an American scholar in her early thirties, researching the part played during the Occupation of WWII by Parisian women. We are given full versions of the transcripts of two of these women, one from the seedier side of the city familiar to the young Édith Piaf, struggling to maintain moral and physical integrity when faced by the sexual importuning of German soldiers with money to burn, and the other from a different world.
The choices they make and shocking, terrible dilemmas they face are sensitively handled by Faulks. One plot twist left me gasping.
I’m less impressed by his choice of the two voices I mentioned. One is of a nineteen-year-old Moroccan lad called Tariq, who’s smuggled himself illegally into the capital of the former colonial ruler of his homeland with the vague aim of finding out something about his half-French mother, who spent her earlier years there. This enables Faulks to indulge in some important, sometimes heavy-handed consideration of France’s often oppressive and brutal colonialist history, and of the plight of immigrants in the 21C city – marginalised and mostly scratching a living, as Tariq ends up doing, in sleazy dead-end jobs like fast-food joints. Two cities, two nations.
At least Tariq’s voice enables Faulks to inject some much needed humour into this dark, disturbing story of historically layered or textured narratives of oppression and hardship, both during the Nazi occupation, and in the modern incarnation of the city. His narcissism, sexual urgency and being constantly hungry are often hilariously apparent; his callow disingenuousness, lack of common sense but basic integrity and decency – with some lapses – also ring true.
Hannah is a less convincing narrator. She’s emotionally scarred and numbed by an ill-advised love affair some years earlier, and Faulks’s providing her with the possibility of romantic redemption is handled, to my mind, rather too conveniently and clunkily.
The author clearly knows Paris intimately, and he brings it sensually to life – especially that dark underbelly noted above that tourists and the fashionable rich rarely see. Tariq serves as a kind of Candide figure, blissfully ignorant of the significance of the names of his beloved metro stations. This causes me to re-examine received notions of such names as Monet or Stalingrad and what they could signify to someone not from a western European culture – and what they say about that culture.
I liked the magical-realist way in which Faulks has figures from the past seem to appear in the flesh in modern Paris. Some embody Tariq’s desperate wish to establish an identity for himself in the living archive of the city, and more pertinently to know and see his late mother in the city, providing him with a personal connection to this alien city which has so far in his young life been only obliquely experienced through its political-historical impact on his homeland.
Others fulfil Hannah’s more academic longing (partly a response also to her emotionally empty life) to animate the past more immediately than historiography allows. The electronic voices she listens to in the archive take on flesh and blood, in a way: this is how history could look, if we had eyes to see, Faulks seems to be saying. Mostly this works.
The puppeteer/beggar on the metro, Victor Hugo, is a more playful example of the ghostly presences that populate this novel as vividly as the supposedly living ones. An epigraph on the first page is a quotation from Hugo’s L’Homme Qui Rit (never heard of it), which gives the book its title. It translates as:
What is history? An echo of the past in the future. A shadow (or reflection) of the future on the past.
There’s a lively interview with Faulks by Sam Leith at the Spectator books podcast from September last year, where I learned that the dedication to ‘Hector’ is to his dog. Why not?!