Diary of a Propagandist

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Reviewed by Tobias Grey
Sunday, November 30, 2008


A Woman's Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France

By Agnès Humbert

Translated from the French by Barbara Mellor

Bloomsbury. 370 pp. $26

A middle-aged divorcée with two grown-up children and a respectable job as an art historian, Agnès Humbert hardly fit the profile of a typical French resistance hero.

Or did she?

In 1940 most French men of fighting age had been taken prisoner by the Germans in what became known as the "debacle." The first members of French resistance cells in Paris, where Humbert worked at the prestigious Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires, were a mixture of women, older men and teenagers whose imaginations had been fired by a radio speech given by the little-known Gen. Charles de Gaulle. "How bizarre it all is!" noted Humbert in her journal on Oct. 20, 1940. "Here we are, most of us the wrong side of forty, careering along like students all fired up with passion and fervour, in the wake of a leader of whom we know absolutely nothing, of whom none of us has ever seen a photograph."

With thrilling immediacy, Humbert's book guides us through the first stumbling steps of what became known as the Musée de l'Homme group, a disparate cell of writers, linguists, historians and social gadflies led by a charismatic Polish ethnographer, Boris Vildé. The cell's greatest achievement, before it was broken up by the Nazis in April 1941, was to publish and deliver five editions of a four-page broadsheet newspaper called, naturally, "Résistance." The paper's main aim was to counter Nazi propaganda, notably by providing evidence that food shortages in France were being caused not by the British blockade but by wholesale looting by the Germans.

More than 60 years after it was first published, Humbert's book, one of the first memoirs of the war to enter the public domain, has finally been translated into English. It was worth the wait: Barbara Mellor not only captures Humbert's reckless spirit but also her very Parisian sense of humor, at turns mordant and sarcastic.

Compared to such famed wartime diaries as Norman Lewis's Naples '44 or The Diary of Anne Frank, which are easily categorized as having been written in the heat of the moment, or even The Journal of Hélène Berr, reviewed in these pages last week, Résistance is a curious hybrid. The first two chapters, covering the French defeat and the first months of the Occupation, are the transcription of Humbert's personal journal from June 1940 up to her arrest by the Gestapo in April 1941. The rest of the book, indeed the major part of it, she wrote retrospectively. After a year of brutal imprisonment and interrogation in French jails, she became one of the earliest French deportees to Germany, where she endured three years of forced labor, mostly in a rayon factory where chemicals bit into her hands and face. When she was at last liberated by the U.S. Third Army, she immediately set about completing her war-time journal. The memories flooded back:

"On 13 April [1941] my diary ends; yet my memories are so clear that I am able to commit them to paper as they happened and in strict sequence. I remember everything as clearly as though it was written in notebooks, one event after another. Slowly turning the pages, I find that virtually every one is illustrated with some barbaric image or other."

Humbert, who trained to be a painter, writes with remarkable pictorial skill, frequently drawing inspiration from favorite tableaux such as Ingrés "Turkish Bath" or the film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." All of her retrospective diary entries are written in the present tense, a remarkably daring stylistic innovation. But it works because Humbert throws herself into the task of recollection just as recklessly and utterly as she did into the resistance.

What we will never know is whether Humbert, who died at 69 in 1963, tampered with her original diary entries before publication. (If the Gestapo had discovered these opening chapters as they appear now, it would have been able to arrest every member of the Musée de l'Homme Groupe. As it was, some managed to escape detention when the cell was broken up.) Were they written in code? Where did she hide them? Why are there so few references to her private life? Did she always intend to publish them? What seems to have decided Humbert to do so was her experience in German prison camps : "I say to myself: 'In fifty years' time my family will know how I was treated by the Germans. I have a grandson, Yves. He will tell his children how I was forced to work beyond the limits of human endurance.' " ·

Tobias Grey is a freelance reporter and literary critic in Paris.

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