Gilles Rozier (Author - 'The Mercy Room')
'Surviving Life, One Memory at a Time'
'The Mercy Room' is a brilliant exploration of sexual obsession and human frailty in a country gripped by war.
In a small town in occupied France during World War II, a teacher of German is recruited by the Gestapo to translate sensitive documents. Every week, waiting for the next assignment, our narrator sits outside the commandant's office and watches prisoners being led to detention cells before being deported. Always existing on the fringes of life, caring only for books, the teacher has never done anything heroic. And certainly this is no time to get entangled in other people's problems.
But one day a stunning Jewish soldier is among the prisoners. His name is Herman and the teacher recognizes him from their lives before the war. In an unprecedented act of boldness, the teacher sneaks Herman out of headquarters, brings him home, and hides him in the cellar, along with a cache of banned books. So begins an extraordinary and shattering affair in which two people and two antagonistic languages, Yiddish and German, are magnetically attracted.
In a tour de force of novelistic technique, Gilles Rozier never reveals the gender of his narrator - opening the question of how many levels of transgression and risk the teacher is taking by hiding Herman. 'The Mercy Room' is an exquisite novel about the power of desire and the competing forces of good or ill in the heart of each of us.
Gilles Rozier was born in Grenoble, France in 1963. He is now the director of the Center for Yiddish Culture in Paris.
Chatting recently with Gilles, I first wondered what acorn of inspiration had first attracted the director of the Center for Yiddish Culture in Paris (himself) to attempt to probe the psyche of a Vichy collaborator who falls in love with a Jew and hides him in the family cellar? "When it comes to me to write a novel, I never have the whole story in my mind before beginning writing. Generally, I see a small light far away, some kind of idea. In the case of 'The Mercy Room', this idea was to write a book to consider the relationships between two languages. As the director of Paris Center for Yiddish Culture, I gave a lecture on the subject : "Yiddish and German : Dangerous Liaisons". Then, I spoke with a fellow novelist and told him than I wanted to write an essay about this subject. He answered to me : "You're a novelist, write a novel!", and I thought that he was right. Well, it was a good idea, but how do you write a novel about the dangerous relationships between Yiddish and German, about the fact that a people tried to kill a second people because this second people was speaking a language which is or too closed or too far from his own language?"
"A friend of mine told me the story of his wife's grand-father, who was, during the Second World War, chief of the railway network for the southern part of France. With this job, he was considered as a collaborator of the German occupiers. But in fact, he was also one of the heads of the resistance for this part of France, and in the same time, he had a wife and children, and a secret lover. So he had twice two lifes: an official professional life and a secret one, an official conjugal life and a secret one. I told the story to my publisher, Olivier Rubinstein of Editions Denoel, and he told me that this job, head of the railway network, could be a little déjà vu. Without thinking about it I answered him 'or may be a German teacher'. Why a German teacher ? In fact, my father's father was a German teacher. During the war, he waS a prisoner in Germany, so he didn't live such a story as in 'The Mercy Room', but sometimes, I am asking to myself what he would do in such a situation."
Regarding this book 'The Mercy Room,' I'm wondering just where you were when it's title first came to mind?! And could it have been named something else, perhaps? "The book was published under this title only in the United states. In England, it was published under the title 'Love Without Resistance', which is the exact translation of the French 'Un amour sans résistance'. It is also the case in almost all 10 other countries in which this novel was published. I like very much the American title for a simple reason: in French, the title can be understood on different ways, especially because of the word resistance which general meaning is the same like in English (Do I have to resist to this love or to abandon myself totally?), but which send you directly to the atmosphere of the war. The French partisans that fighted against the German occupiers are always called resistants, never partisans. In this fact, you can understand the title like: 'Do I have to make love or to make resistance ?' I am not sure that the same play of words is possible in English. So the American publisher asked me if I agree with their proposal, 'The Mercy Room', and I totally agreed, because it is also a title which has a lot of meanings."
The harrowing tale that unfolds within this book is extremely detailed, vibrant even, but in the end how much of it was ultimate truth and how much of it was enriched by the need to bolster possibly faded memories?" "I am not sure to understand exactly the question. Are you asking me how much autobiographic this story is? If you consider that I was born in 1963, there can't be so much autobiography. There is no truth in this story. It is a fiction !"
I found 'The Mercy Room' a veritable breeze of a book, regardless of its in-depth, sometimes torrid revelations, but was it always your intention to write a book that could easily be read in a day in one's back yard? "My intentions never go in this direction: I leave this marketing intentions to marketing people, and personally, I flew this world (before working at Paris center for Yiddish Culture and being a writer, I worked for the widest French Department store network Galeries Lafayette, and I was not so happy!). Nevertheless, people say generally about my way of writing that it is quite elliptical, that's why the book is not very thick."
The story here is unique and interesting, but is filled with such a feeling of hopelessness and sadness at times also. Was there ever a time when contemplating the actual writing of this book seemed too much of a mental burden to you? "No, never. I don't feel so much hopelessness in this book. What could I do? Half of the Jewish population of France was assassinated during the war, and among them, maybe 80% of Polish Jews settled in France because foreign Jews were the first to be arrested. I don't think that a happy end would be so credible. And as the narrator says a few times: do you imagine those two people having a conjugal life in a peaceful country?"
Are you working on another book as we speak, perhaps? And, if so, please tell us more about it "'The Mercy Room' was published in France in September 2003. last September, I published a new novel, La Promesse d'Oslo, about an ultra-orthodox woman called Sharon, living in Jerusalem, whoses unique son was assassinated in a suicide bombing of an autobus. She is 42 years old, she is divorced, and she first thinks, after the murder, that she will never have a new child and that she will die alone. But thanks to secular Israeli neighbours, and with the agreement of her rabbi, she travels to Oslo to have an artificial insemination."
"Now I am writing my fifth novel. It hasn't got any title yet. It is dealing with a dark affaire of the burning of a store in a French province city, today. This store is ruled by a mixed couple, he is a Jew and she is not. And there is a mystery during all the book wether this burning was an antisemitic agression or not."
Finally, and having read 'The Mercy Room' from cover to cover, I still do not know if the narrator is male or female! And so to finally enable me to put this book to rest in my mind, please reveal - if you would be so kind - the answer to this question: Is the narrator male or female?! "Do you really think that I know??? It is part of the book, part of this time in history when all was unclear, grey. And it is important to let each reader read another book, an own book. Part of my readership sees a male, part of it a female. It was both very exciting and very disturbing to write this book for the reason that I couldn't use part of the French language because this part is 'gendered', and all my translators in foreign languages told me that it was a real challenge for them, quite hard but also very exciting, and I am very grateful to them that they respected my intention. If you feel frustrated not to know, it is also good: it is so good to have some frustation in this world who tries to dupe you with the idea that you have all rights and that you can get everything. No my dear, I am sorry to tell you that you can't get everything. Or may be you can (I don't know you enough to know) but you won't get from me an answer to this question!"
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
If you would like to win a copy of Gilles' new book 'The Mercy Room,' just answer this easy question: Towards the end of the book, our 'mystery' narrator kills the Nazi boyfriend of his/her sister ... but how exactly do they complete this horrific act?!
Send me your answers and if you're correct you'll be in the running to win one of these great new books! Just send us an e:mail here before May 15th with your answer and the subject title 'THE MERCY ROOM BOOKs' to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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