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‘Maman, What Are We Called Now?’ by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar *****

Persephone Books are a real treat for me. I love that moment when I open one of their beautiful dove grey covers for the first time, and always take a moment to admire the undoubtedly beautiful endpapers, before embarking on a story which I’m always certain I will enjoy. I was lucky enough to be able to reserve a copy of Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar’s Maman, What Are We Called Now? from my local library, as it’s a copy I’ve had difficulty picking up elsewhere.

Maman, What Are We Called Now? collects together a short journal and articles written by Paris resident, Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, during the Second World War, and directly afterwards. First published in its original French in 1957, and in English in this translation by Francine Yorke in 2015, the book is the 115th title on the Persephone list. It also includes a long, and highly informative preface written by biographer Caroline Moorehead, in which she provides a lot of information about both their families, and their backgrounds. I really appreciated both the specific context, and the personal details which she gives; they certainly add to the whole.

Mesnil-Amar’s original journal was written between July and August 1944, and begun on the day she learnt that her husband was missing. Moorehead contextualises this well, commenting: ‘In the last frenzied weeks of the German occupation of Paris her husband André had disappeared. She wanted to record her thoughts, her fears, her desperate hopes, her memories, along with a description of Paris itself… When she abandoned her diary, five weeks later, Paris was free and André, miraculously, was alive.’

Both Jacqueline and André were Jewish, but were ‘totally assimilated’, seeing themselves as French citizens first, and Jewish second. André joined the Jewish resistance, which had begun in Warsaw in 1942. After being tricked by the Gestapo, he was sent to Auschwitz on the last deportation train, on the 17th of August 1944. Astonishingly, he managed to escape from the moving train, and walked the 50 kilometres back to Paris. After being reunited with his wife and young daughter Sylvie, he and Jacqueline helped to set up a vital network of information for deported Jews, helping them to locate their families after the Holocaust.

Throughout Mesnil-Amar’s heartrending journal, the reader is made party to her extreme anxiety, uncertainty, and grief. On the 25th of July, just a week after André’s disappearance, Mesnil-Amar writes: ‘I was straining to hear the slightest sound, longing for the familiar rapid footsteps outside the door, bur they never came. A thousand times I thought I’d heard one of the sounds that are so much a part of the man I love – the jangle of his keys, the click of the door handle, his little smoker’s cough, the rustle of a newspaper – and the sound of his cheerful voice calling out his pet name for me from the other end of the flat. But nothing. Complete silence. Always the same all-enveloping silence we endured after the others were arrested.’ On the same day, she writes of the clash of information which she has been given by others: ‘Everything just adds to the confusion and the horror, it’s all black and shadowy… I will sell my rings, I will sell my soul, I will sell my life, but I can’t believe even that would be enough.’

Throughout the journal portion of Maman, What Are We Called Now?, Mesnil-Amar lays her panic and vulnerability bare. She writes briefly of members of her family, all of whom are in hiding across the city. She writes, sometimes at length, of the incredibly brave and selfless people around her, and how they have provided herself and Sylvie with help, and with hope. She addresses sections of her journal directly to André, and these are fervent and sincere.

Something which she comes to realise is the disconnect which her husband’s disappearance creates. On the 26th of July, Mesnil-Amar reflects: ‘This endless walk took me through every part of Paris, so many different cities, each one a part of me, my avenues, my streets, the loveliest and the ugliest, the oldest and the newest, and I walked with my eyes half-closed, all of a sudden a stranger in my own city, separated from it by my grief and yet forever bound to it.’ She questions her faith, wondering whether she does believe in God: ‘Not every day, alas. And especially not every night… I no longer know who or what to hold on to, what god, what human face, which of the values that used to give meaning to my life.’

Under the rather lovely pen name of Delphine, Jacqueline contributed articles, theatre reviews, and ‘light-hearted sketches of society life’ to various magazines. After the war, the tone and topics of her writing, unsurprisingly, shifted. Moorehead notes that in these later articles, ‘the light-hearted Delphine of the pre-war years had been replaced by a more serious, sadder figure.’ One can notice a shift in tone even between the journal and the articles written afterwards; there is a gaping sadness, and a despair which is almost palpable. Both her prose and the translation are fluid and beautiful, and throughout, Jacqueline is astute and highly observant of everything around her. She questions herself relentlessly about why people were resigned to standing by and watching, as the whole of Europe was decimated, and much of its Jewish population was murdered before their very eyes.

I always feel incredibly grateful when I come to read a diary, particularly one as illuminating as Mesnil-Amar’s. For me, they provide, by far, the best insight into the author’s present. They record details which may otherwise be lost to the annals of history, or perhaps might not be picked up by future historians. Maman, What Are We Called Now? – something which Mesnil-Amar’s daughter asked her, picking up as she did on the grip of Nazi Germany, and the deportation of friends – is such an important document, and one which is an absolute privilege to read.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal’ by Asne Seierstad ****

A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal is the third of Seierstad’s books which I have read to date, and has been translated from the Norwegian by Ingrid Christophersen.  This particular reportage comes from Iraq, where Seierstad stayed for over three months in the beginning of 2003.  A Norwegian award-winning journalist, she had been sent to the country in order to report upon the war and its aftermath; she arrives before said war, and is able to report upon the state of politics, and the way of life for the city’s citizens.  The book’s blurb reads that ‘her passionate and erudite book conveys both the drama and the tragedy of her one hundred and one days in a city at war’.   9780465076017

I was in my early years of secondary school when the Iraq war broke out.  Whilst I remember much of the reportage, and the horrors which it conveyed, I do not feel as though I was given much of an idea about how awful it must have been to live, and to try to survive, in the country at the time.  I haven’t read much about Iraq from a retrospective position, but felt that it was an important thing to do.

In A Hundred and One Days, Seierstad brilliantly details the frustrations and dangers which journalists worldwide faced in trying to uncover the truth behind the all-pervasive propaganda of the regime.  She is humble with regard to her account: ‘No story contains the whole story.  This is just one of many and it gives a fragment of the whole, not more.’  She demonstrates what a hold propaganda had upon the country, and also shows the new, brave breed of people, who wanted to remain anonymous, but found it important to tell her the truth about what they were living through.  She writes, ‘Iraq has become a country of schizophrenics and cowards, a country where people fear their friends, their family, their own children.  Once upon a time Iraq was the lighthouse of the Middle East, but thirty years of Oriental Stalinism and twelve years of embargoes has crushed the country and its people’.

The book’s translation is rather Americanised, and I must admit that I found a few of the past participles and such used rather jarring.  The writing itself wasn’t as good as I have come to expect from Seierstad either; I remember her being rather eloquent in The Bookseller of Kabul, and One of Us, her reportage of Anders Breivik and the Oslo massacre he perpetrated, is incredibly strong with regard to its prose.

At first, the book failed to grip me.  Some of the paragraphs in the initial section were incredibly interesting, but others felt too drawn out, and there was no real sense of cohesion to the whole.  As other reviews have mentioned, much emphasis is placed upon office bureaucracy; whilst obviously pivotal for Seierstad, to allow her to extend her stay in the country, this did not seem overly useful on the whole for the general reader.  Some of the extended interviews also seem to have been cut a little short, or repeat almost entirely the details of others.  Once I had read past the first fifty pages, however, I found the book incredibly compelling.  There was some clumsy phrasing at times, but it was largely rather a fluid piece.  The inclusion of original newspaper pieces was beneficial to the whole, and largely they flowed seamlessly from the main body of prose.

A Hundred and One Days is a fascinating, thorough, and honest portrait of a wartorn city, and whilst it is not my favourite piece of Seierstad’s longer journalistic pieces, it is certainly an important book to read in order to understand the reasoning behind and conditions of the war.

Purchase from The Book Depository