Stories of Paris

Walking in Paris, you feel the bustling life in cafes, bars, and feel the artistic and romantic ambiance. After a short visit to Paris I have become very interested in French history.

Recently I enjoyed reading some Paris themed books. Starting with the non -fiction book, At the existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. Paris, near the turn of 1932-3. Three young friends meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron, who opens their eyes to a radical new way of thinking. History unfolds from Germany, that covers Heidegger, Husserl and the legacy of Phenomenology. But it’s not only the philosophy that fascinates me, it’s more of those thinkers’ life, of living in an extraordinary period, and the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.  Certainly, not everyone is a hero, but neither should one enthusiastically  be inspired by Hitler and  support his rise. There are a lot of lessons to be learnt during the early period of Nazi Germany when some intellectuals were happily collaborating and working with the Nazis. For example, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and his attitude toward Jews are highly controversial. The book is well researched and crafted. I learned a lot from it and it’s a 5 star read for me.

The 3 fiction books I read, I started with April in Paris, 1921, a light detective fiction by Tessa Lunney. Kiki Button, an Australian war nurse, no longer content with her quiet life in Australia, decides to return to Paris, searching for freedom, fun and adventure. After the war, all sorts of political forces gather in Paris, German Nationalists, Communists, Bolshevik and English spies.  While the city was keen to get back to normality after millions died and other millions were injured, the new found freedom is a huge draw card for Kiki with coffee, wine, food, sex and parties and so on. Kiki becomes a gossip writer exposing the excesses of high society in Paris for the press in London. However, the old agency calls her, and her life changes from party animal to a clever and heroic spy. The storyline of the book is sometimes fascinating, like the attraction of light spicy food. Paris provides an intriguing background for the story.  I’ll give it 3 stars.

The second work of fiction I read was The Pearl Thief’ written by Fiona McIntosh. In 1963, the beautiful Severine Kassel is asked to catalogue some treasures in the London Museum, this is where she finds her families missing pearl.  The old Byzantine pearl that Severine would have inherited from her Mum had her family not be killed in a massacre during the war. As the only survivor of the family, she starts to hunt for the killer. With the help of Mossad, along with an English gentleman, she is eventually able to achieve justice. I liked the first half of the story because it was neat and well written. However, I did feel the author included too much in the second half of the story.  The long suffering heroine is finally rewarded with a happy ending. I’ll give 3.5 stars for this one.

The last fiction book I picked was really an enjoyable read. Paris echo was written by a very good writer, Sebastian Faulks and he didn’t disappoint me. It is set in the contemporary Paris and the main characters are Hannah, an American historian, and Tarig, a runaway kid from Moroccan. They both are roaming freely in Paris and try to find their own true life. Hannah’s research is to find women’s stories set during the Nazi occupation which leads her to heroic women as well as betrayal.  Tarig wants to discover a world that is different from his daily school routine. Their lives become interwoven and their stories unfold gradually with separate narratives. The book draws readers into the cafés, bars and food as what Paris is but these are the lighter backdrop to the story.  The author leads us dive into something more profound behind all the shiny surface of the city as Faulks vividly evokes the history and brings the characters to life not without sympathy. The betrayal, sacrifice during the war, the loss and the suffering post WWII has never gone away. These stories are like thick air that is so heavy it is just hanging there.

I think next time I see the River Seine I’ll be able to see those hundreds of lost souls through shiny glasses of the bars and river cruises. One says there were hundreds of North Americans been collectively drowned by Papon in River Seine during Algeria Independence war. (Papon who was the war criminal and sent Jews to the concentration camps in WWII, still held the power in 1961.) I know history is more complicated but it should never be forgotten. It is the obligation of late generation to remember those nameless people.

This book is a work of literature, very well balanced and beautifully written. 5 stars for this one.