- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007

It may be Paris, and it may be April, but it’s also wartime, and the City of Light is occupied by the German army, which changes everything. Everything but love, that is. The narrator of this fine bittersweet novel is a young German soldier whose excellent, unaccented French earns him a reprieve from routine back-office duty. Instead, he is ordered to serve as a translator for the Gestapo interrogators as they attempt to wring information out of suspected members of the Resistance.

In order to hear what the suspect is saying, he must sit close, as the torture is ratcheted up, notch by notch. It’s a soul-deadening job for this particular soldier, Roth by name, because he loves France, not just its language but also its people and its ways. To clear his mind, when he is off duty he walks the lovely streets, their charm and beauty helping to lave his memory if not salve his conscience. And on one of these walks he wanders into a book store, and through its window looks out and sees a young woman.

“A uniquely beautiful face. Outsized eyes, a seductively round forehead under reddish brown curls. Her face had a cunning feline look, and softly curving lips.” She’s watching a butterfly, and it draws her close to the window: “When she was only a few meters away, she stared in my direction — and didn’t notice me.”

Corporal Roth, 21 years old, standing in his Wehrmacht uniform in a bookstore gazing through the window at a lovely French girl, is smitten. The owner asks him if has found anything. Roth hesitates, says no and puts down the books he’s been looking at. By the time he is outside, both the butterfly and the girl have flown away.

Several days later, Roth has to translate as the questioners torture a 15-year-old boy suspected of sabotaging German trucks. Later, back in his room and still shaken by the experience, he lies on his bed and wishes he could be like the French people he sees enjoying the sun as they lounge on the stones near Pont Royal.

“If I didn’t have to look different from them, I was someone who could blend in anywhere, in any city. I wanted to disappear among them. To be part of them; no one had a right to see the other in me. Since the glorious days when we marched into Paris, I’d felt nothing but anxiety.” So, to produce this transformation, he does something that is both spectacularly risky and entirely in character for a young man who thinks he may be in love.

In uniform, he leaves the hotel where he and many other German soldiers are billeted, carrying with him a bag containing his civilian suit, a shirt, a hat and shoes. He changes in the privacy of a bombed-out building, and, voila, he is not Roth but Antoine. “I walked out into the street as another. I’d laid aside all my privileges; I was defenseless against occupiers and occupied. I must not show my papers or speak my language. One false word would betray me. And by 7:30 at the latest, I had to metamorphose back into my former self.”

He carries a slim volume, “La Fontaine’s Fables.” “The book gave me security; it reinforced my biography. Monsieur Antoine, out for a stroll … I gradually returned to normal breathing and loosened my grip on La Fontaine. I pushed my hat up high on my forehead. For no good reason, I smiled into the late afternoon.”

He returns to the charming little street where he’d seen the girl, and he discovers she is the daughter of the bookseller. He doesn’t meet her, but he does learn that her name is Chantal. He plans to go back to that now so-special Parisian street, but then near-disaster strikes, in the form of Anna Rieleck-Sostmann, a female staff member.

She tells Roth she’s seen him going around “in civilian clothes after work.” However, she promises his secret will remain safe with her — as long as he has sex with her. And, if that is not sufficiently complicated, Captain Leibold, his military boss, has similar designs on the handsome young corporal.

The captain has Roth added to the list of invitees to a Waffen-SS meeting, after which a group of them go Turachevsky’s, a nightclub/brothel, where Roth is stunned to see Chantal is one of the three entertainers on stage. But is she also one of the women who provide the sexual entertainment in the next room? He tries to find her, but cannot, and, his mood plunging, he is tempted to become Antoine again, despite his fear of Anna, who makes love with all the finesse of a Maschinegerwehr 42 (machine gun).

Unable to resist, he dons his disguise, and now he does meet her. But he tells her he is a student. Does she believe him? Would she care if she knew the truth? Chantal is a fierce partisan, as is her father and all of the others on the little street. Is Roth living very, very dangerously? And then, she does find out. And all hell breaks loose. I could tell you what happens, but, as a former president once said, that would be wrong.

Suffice it to say that Roth/Antoine acts in a manner that changes the danger he faces from potential to actual, and while it brings him and Chantal together and they both fall in love, it jeopardizes his life, her life, and that of her friends and compatriots. The novel picks up speed, and the action becomes riveting (or, as I’m told the Germans would say, spannend), and hurtles to its end. It’s a moral dilemma of the first order, but it is also a very realistically told love story.

“April in Paris” is the first book by the German actor and screenwriter, but it reads like the work of an assured professional who has done this many times before. There are few if any false notes, and Mr. Wallner seldom romanticizes, simply describing the action and showing, rather than telling, the characters’ motivations and emotions. Although there are numerous types, from the sexually voracious Anna to the sexually conflicted captain, as well as the older Frenchmen with backbones of steel, each one is credibly drawn, with no cardboard in sight.

The prose is perfectly suited to the story, and in passage after passage, you “see” wartime Paris, its beauty still there but lying dormant under the rubble of the occupation. For example: “Sheds and warehouses, awnings over entryways, daubs of paint on greasy chimneys. Red-wine drinkers, belching in an alley. We were walking into the stony bowels of Montmartre. In the shade on the north side, a vineyard, gas holders, long sheds. Trains whizzed into the depths of the earth; clouds of industrial smoke billowed skyward. The horizon was hidden in a powdery haze.”

A sensitive young soldier falling in love with one of “the enemy” is a story as old as war itself, but Michael Wallner, showing uncommon power in a debut work, makes it all very believable. And touching. Watch for this writer; he’s good.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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