By Brian Moore
Dutton, 250 pages, $22.95
Brian Moore writes about the life of faith from the perspective of a long-estranged insider. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1921—the family home stood across the street from the Grand Lodge of the militantly Protestant Orange Order—Moore emigrated to Canada after the war, then to New York and London, finally settling in Malibu. He was raised as a Catholic, but ceased to believe (so he has often said) even as a boy. “I would like to believe in something,” Moore told one interviewer, in the bland manner he has perfected for such occasions. “And I am interested in people who do believe in something. But I don’t know what to believe in.” The climax of his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, published in the mid-1950s, is the protagonist’s loss of faith. And yet, Moore has never been able to close the door on Catholicism. Indeed, over time—in novels such as Catholics (1972), Cold Heaven (1983), Black Robe (1985), The Color of Blood (1987), Lies of Silence (1990), and No Other Life (1993)—he has turned to Catholic themes with increasing frequency.
The Statement, Moore’s eighteenth novel, closely resembles its immediate predecessors. Like all of his books after Black Robe (his only attempt at historical fiction), it takes the form of a thriller, with a seductively relentless pace reminiscent of Simenon at his best. As Moore acknowledges in a bit of background included in the error-riddled press kit for the novel, The Statement was inspired by the case of Paul Touvier, a Vichy functionary guilty of wartime crimes, including the murder of seven Jews. Sentenced to death in absentia after the war, Touvier—thanks to a network of sympathizers in the Church, and with the complicity of high-placed government officials—eluded capture until 1989. Although the press kit does not mention it, an excellent book on the events that served as the basis for Moore’s novel was published in 1996: Memory, the Holocaust, and French Justice: The Bousquet and Touvier Affairs, edited by Richard J. Golsan (University Press of New England).
Set in the south of France in the summer of 1989, The Statement traces the fate of the war criminal and fugitive Pierre Brossard (closely modeled on Touvier). The aging Brossard has established a cautious routine, staying a couple of weeks in an abbey here, a couple of weeks in a monastery there, sheltered from the public eye. Now, however, feeling the heat of increased scrutiny of his case, he senses that someone is tailing him.
Thus begins a classic story of pursuit in which the protagonist is the quarry of rival hunters: the gendarmerie, whose Colonel Roux seeks to bring Brossard to justice at last; and a shadowy group calling itself the “Committee for Justice for the Jewish Victims of Dombey” (where, in 1944, Brossard directed and took part in the murder of fourteen Jews), seeking to assassinate him. At the same time, the Cardinal of Lyons, who has commissioned an independent investigation of Brossard’s case, has ordered that the Church no longer give sanctuary to the fugitive. A few dissidents, followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, will ignore the Cardinal’s order, but the vise is tightening.
Like many books in this genre, Moore’s thrillers are almost devoid of humor, but in compensation they are richly supplied with irony. That is especially true of The Statement, where the ironies multiply and double back on themselves to dizzying effect. The irony begins with the statement referred to in the title, purporting to represent the victims of Dombey, which is to be affixed to Brossard’s body after he is killed. In fact, as events unfold, it becomes clear that there is no “Committee” of Jews determined to take justice into their own hands. Brossard’s would-be assassins have been hired by the big fish who have been his longtime protectors and patrons, themselves guilty of “crimes against humanity” under Vichy, who fear that Brossard’s arrest and trial will result in a public outcry over their own cases. One of these men was responsible for the deportation of 1,600 French Jews to Nazi concentration camps. So the irony of “the statement”—with its concluding words, “the dead are now avenged. This case is closed”—is bleak indeed.
In real life, Touvier was ultimately tried for his crimes and died in a prison hospital last July. Here Moore takes a novelist’s license to depart from his model. At the outset, in part because he is being hunted by men much younger than he, Brossard wins a degree of sympathy from the reader and even a grudging admiration for his resourcefulness. Gradually, however, the depths of his vicious anti-Semitism—and his wartime actions—are exposed. What gives the novel its gripping moral power, quite apart from the mechanics of the chase, is the fact that Brossard is not a simple hypocrite: a man who consciously pretends to repentance and devout faith merely to win the support of the churchmen who shield him. His sin is at once more complex and far more common than simple hypocrisy: he lies to himself. Thus the suspense of The Statement does not finally center on Brossard’s flight from his pursuers but rather on the fate of his soul.
Early in the narrative, after he has sought out a trusted priest to hear his confession, despite the risk entailed in the journey, Brossard thinks of absolution, a stay against his fear and guilt:
Ego te absolvo. Am I really absolved, am I really cleansed, am I free to enter heaven? I don’t know. My whole life has been an imposture. I’m lying, even when I think I’m telling the truth. Yet, in these last years I want to tell the truth to someone. If I can tell it to a priest in confession, I feel better, I feel hope, if not in this world, then in the next. Confession is my insurance. My heart is bad. I could drop dead tomorrow. I need absolution. If God forgives me then I don’t give a damn about this world.
Moore’s account of Brossard’s interior life prompts reflection on the astonishing promise of God’s forgiveness while probing the genuineness of the war criminal’s confession. The questions Brossard asks himself-“Am I really absolved, am I really cleansed, am I free to enter heaven?”—won’t be answered once and for all until the very last page of the book. Suffice it to say that implicit in the novel’s conclusion is the understanding of confession articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which declares that “Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed.”
When a writer repeatedly proclaims that he has left faith behind in childhood—in fact, never had it—and then proceeds to write book after book in which a crisis of faith plays a central role, we may reasonably wonder if he is not engaged in his own evasive maneuvers, conscious of a pursuer at his heels. And we may hope that at last he will turn and be caught.
John Wilson is Managing Editor of Books & Culture.