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Claude Ollier: Déconnection (later: Obscuration) (Disconnection)
Claude Ollier was associated with the Editions de Minuit/nouveau roman writers but soon drifted away from them and set his own style. A lot of his writing was informed by his travel, particularly in North Africa where he lived and worked for a while. This book is not very typical of his writing, as it is not particularly exotic as regards location but, like many other books he wrote, it shows a keen eye for the location and an almost painterly gift of observation.
The book consists of two stories told in parallel. They may or may not be related but, as the title implies, they may be disconnected. Both concern war but, unless the young man in the first story is the same as the old man in the second story – and there is nothing to suggest that he is – there is no other connection. The first story concerns a young Frenchman, called Martin, aged eighteen. He has been sent as part of the Nazi forced labour programme to work in Nuremberg. Though conditions are hard – they have to work twelve hour days – they do have a limited amount of freedom and even a small amount of pay. Unlike the forced labour recruits from Eastern Europe, they are allowed to wander round the town when not working, though often their spare time is spent sleeping after their hard working day. To Martin’s surprise, the camp is located near the centre of the town. On one occasion, while walking round, Martin comes to the main square where Goebbels is holding a rally. To his surprise, while there are some cheers and support for Goebbels, quite a few people do not raise their arm in the Nazi salute. The event presumably took place in the Nuremberg parade ground which Martin will later see, damaged by bombs.
While the work is hard, it is not just forced labour conscripts doing it. There are many Germans, including those unable to fight – those rejected for military service, the handicapped, those injured while in military service. They, as well as the forced labour conscripts, can also be victims of the regular Allied bombing raids. Martin even makes a few friends – a German man, Gunther, who had had trouble with the law, who shows Martin some old magazines glorifying Nazi atrocities, a Ukrainian man and a German woman whose husband had been killed in Russia. He meets a Frenchman and they plan to escape by train but Gunther strongly advises him against it. He meets other people, including a German man who tells him that Europe is dead. He even goes to the cinema and theatre. He also learns of events such as D-Day. But things become difficult for Martin with increased bombing raids which, on one occasion, destroy most of the medieval city and leave fires burning for weeks afterwards, and his arrest for subversive behaviour.
The other story follows an old man in a small village, following World War 3. We know little about World War 3 but clearly it was not apocalyptic. The man stays at home on his own – we do not know whether he has ever been married or much else about him. What we do know is that he used to write radio plays and was commissioned to write one before the War. Despite the fact it will not now be broadcast – and he is well aware of that – he is still continuing to write it. Much of his time is observing the world. His trees have been victims of Dutch elm disease and he has already chopped some down and will have to chop others down. But, apart from that, the only things that seem to be changing is that people are leaving, though it is not clear where they are going, and gradually it is no longer possible to get certain things. The telephone and mail have stopped functioning and certain commodities such as butter and meat are no longer available, though, as this is the country, he can occasionally get eggs and bread. He lives in what he calls the small house but owns a large house and travels there by bicycle to see how it is and finds it unchanged, with his papers on the table where he left them.
Both Martin and the unnamed narrator struggle with the situation they find themselves in as a result of their respective wars but, at the same time, they more or less cope, being both pragmatic and curious. Both pay particular attention to their environment. Martin wanders around Nuremberg and studies it in some detail, while the unnamed narrator studies his garden and surrounding countryside and goes off cycling and walking to see what he can see. Indeed, Martin almost gets himself killed in bombing raids while wandering around. We do hear about and, to a limited degree, see some of the horrors of the war in Nuremberg, yet the Germans Martin deals with are moderately friendly. When he does the nightshift and is caught asleep at his machine, he is let off with only a mild rebuke, though he could have been severely punished. The unnamed narrator speculates on the cause of World War 3 but has no real idea of what caused it or what happened. He tries to find information on the TV and radio but such stations as exist tend to be in a foreign language (radio) or offer only light entertainment (TV).
While this novel can certainly be construed as an anti-war novel, Ollier does not drive home the point. Indeed, if there is a point, it is to show how people react to being caught up in a war when they have little power to do anything about their situation. As such, it is certainly successful as Ollier tells his story well. World War 2, obviously ends but World War 3? We do not know.
First published in French 1988 by Flammarion
First published in English 1989 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Dominic Di Bernardi