“This slim and spare tale is delivered by a French narrator recruited as a translator for the U.S. Army in the final weeks of World War II. His duty is to relay the testimony of war crime victims, innocent civilians who have seen their loved ones raped or killed by debauched U.S. soldiers, during military tribunals. But after just days on the job, and still reeling from the trauma of Nazi occupation, he notes a disturbing trend: Almost all the defendants are African American, most sentenced to hang without hesitation …Guilloux's account succeeds as more than mere historical curiosity. As rendered by Kaplan, the minimalist prose resounds with chilling understatement …OK, Joe is a riveting rediscovery.”—Rachel Howard, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
The first chapter from
No one in the car was talking, not the two lieutenants in the back, nor the driver I was sitting next to. It must have been around three in the afternoon. We had just left the city hall, where the lieutenants had come looking for me.
As soon as he entered my office, the older one asked me if I was really the mayor's interpreter. When I answered yes, the lieutenants introduced themselves.
I asked them to sit down. They refused. Lieutenant Stone asked if I was the same person who had spoken with one of their men at the entrance to the girls' school the night before.
He got specific: “With Bill?”
Yes. I was the one. With Bill Cormier, yes.
“OK. According to Bill, it seems you don't have much to do at the city hall?”
That was true too. In fact, I had nothing to do.
“In that case, perhaps you could do us a big favor.”
They were about to go out on a case and they needed an interpreter. How about it? The jeep was out in front.
The younger of the two, Lieutenant Bradford, struck me as a large, thirty-year-old teenager, very well groomed, classy, looking rather British—fair hair, a girl's complexion, light blue eyes. He smiled affably. As soon as you saw him, you understood that he must have excellent manners, always and in every situation. His colleague, a little older, seemed sturdier because of his broad shoulders and the way he held himself. Also because of his thick black hair and the stubborn hairs covering his wrists down to the last joints of his fingers. He had beautiful hands, but his facial features were a little coarse, his mouth greedy, his eyes very black. He too was smiling most kindly as he waited for my reply.
I said yes, of course. Why not? But first I had to inform Monsieur Royer, our new mayor, and get his permission. I phoned. Monsieur Royer said I could go, since there was nothing for me to do. And I followed the lieutenants.
The jeep was there, just outside the door, with a driver at the wheel. We got in. The lieutenants sat in back and I sat next to the driver.
“OK, Joe,” said Lieutenant Stone.
Joe shifted right into gear and no one said another word.
It wasn't easy to get out of town; there were crowds everywhere, starting with the square in front of the city hall, which is also where the police station is. The crowds had been there from the start, as well as in the center of town, but Joe knew just how to maneuver without losing his patience. As soon as we left downtown, everything went smoothly, and once we got on the road, Joe made good time.
Joe didn't say a word, but he winked at me and passed me a pouch of Prince Albert's. I filled my pipe.
Where were we going? It was a lovely sunny August day. We didn't pass anyone on the road and there weren't any planes in the sky. We drove past the ruins of a burned-out jeep.
Joe was a good driver and drove fast. You'd have thought he knew the way as well as one of the locals. He knew where he was going; so did the lieutenants. But I didn't. I hadn't asked, any more than I'd asked what the case was that they needed my services for.
Joe drove for over an hour and then turned left, down a sunken road between steep slopes planted with oak trees. After the bright light of the road there was shade and cool air under the leaves; in the jeep the same silence reigned. Lieutenant Stone was studying a file he had taken out of his briefcase.
We arrived in a hamlet. Joe, still just as sure of himself, drove into a large sunny courtyard. At the back of the courtyard was a small house: four walls and a slate roof. On the wall facing the courtyard was a door, and to the left of the door a window. Joe stopped the jeep. Lieutenant Stone put his file back into his briefcase. He got out first. Lieutenant Bradford followed him. Then I got out. Joe stayed at the wheel.
Lieutenant Stone walked up to the door, briefcase in hand. He knocked. A tall country woman of about fifty, rather stout, dressed in black, opened it. We all cringed at the sight of the woman: her face looked almost as if it had been skinned; her forehead, her left cheek, and her chin were covered with scarlet spots.
“I know who you are,” she said softly, stepping aside. “Come in.”
The house consisted of a single room with a dirt floor. At the back of the room a young woman was busy tending a stove. She didn't join us.
“Something terrible happened here,” Lieutenant Stone told me as he placed his briefcase on the table. “Would you ask this woman…?”
He wanted to find out directly from the witness, “in her own words” as he put it, how she had gotten those lesions on her face.
The woman replied very gently that they came from the splinters of wood the bullet had made when it went through the door.
Lieutenant Stone and Lieutenant Bradford exchanged glances.
“Yes. So that's it,” said Lieutenant Bradford.
“And then?” Lieutenant Stone turned back to me: “Ask the witness…”
The woman went on to say that the noise of the gun blast had deafened her and that she didn't realize right away that her husband had collapsed at her feet.
“Awful!” muttered Lieutenant Stone. “Just awful.”
He sat down at the table, opened his briefcase, and took out a file, which he spread in front of him. Lieutenant Bradford kept walking around the room looking at everything. The girl, a handsome country girl about twenty years old, somewhat heavy-set, with a glowing complexion, stayed next to the stove.
“Ask the witness…”
At what time did the incident occur? Had night fallen? Had the girl gone over to the base? Had she spoken to one of the men?
Yes. The girl had gone to the base.
“Ask her what for.”
“To have a look, like everybody else,” the mother answered.
They were supposed to be so nice! Why wouldn't she have gone like the others? Everyone had gone.
“Did she speak to one of them?”
“No,” said the girl.
“But he followed her,” said Lieutenant Bradford as he approached us. “Did he know where she lived?”
“Did he follow you?” Lieutenant Stone asked.
The girl didn't know. She hadn't been aware of it.
After this reply there was another moment of silence. Lieutenant Stone threw his pencil down on his papers—he had noted down all of the girl's answers and those of the mother—and leaned back, as if prepared to listen to a long story.
“Now ask the mother to tell us what happened.”
The mother looked around; she raised her hand meekly, pointing at the four walls of the room, only one of which had two openings—the door and the window.
“You see. This is where we have always lived. Night was falling. We were getting ready for bed when we heard someone walking in the courtyard.”
At first they thought it was a neighbor coming to ask for a favor or to bring news. But the girl saw the silhouette of a soldier through the window. The soldier had called out “Mamoiselle.” The mother had closed the shutters right away while the father locked the door.
“We figured out right away that it was one of the soldiers from the base.” The father yelled at the soldier to go away. “There's no Mademoiselle here for you.”
Lieutenant Stone wanted to know whether the father had insulted the soldier. For example, had they called him a nigger?
“No, we told him to go away.”
Did the witness think that the soldier was drunk at this point?
The mother had no idea. How could she have known? All she could say was that the soldier got mad and started to kick the door.
They were terrified. On the father's orders the girl turned out the lights and hid in a corner next to the wardrobe.
“There,” said the mother, pointing to the spot.
More and more enraged, the soldier kept pounding and yelling “Mamoiselle.” They thought the door would cave in. The father and the mother leaned against the door and stayed there for a long time, pushing against it.
“I don't know… He was pounding hard. First with his feet, then with something else. Father told me to get a hatchet but I didn't dare leave the door.”
The mother yelled out to her daughter to get the hatchet. The girl went, but couldn't find it. They had to turn the light back on.
The mother spoke again: “He was pounding with the butt of his gun. Father figured it out before I did.”
“For a long time?”
“Yes. Pretty long. The door was shaking. We were still pushing against it. He stopped. We heard him walking and we thought he had left. That's when he fired at the door.”
The father had collapsed; half of his skull was blown off. The mother didn't understand right away. She collapsed too, but first she thought that something had fallen on his head, she didn't know, she was dumbstruck. Only later did she realize that she was covered in blood and in her husband's brains and that half her cheek was torn off. From her corner of the room, the girl had started to scream.
“Good. Let's stop there,” said Lieutenant Stone. “It's terrible. Absolutely terrible. Tell her we are sorry to have to ask all these questions. Tell her too that the guilty party has been arrested and that he'll be tried in two or three days.”
I had the impression no one knew what to say next or what to do. The two women, thinking the officers were finished, offered them a snack. They couldn't refuse a cup of coffee and a slice of bread and butter? They declined politely.
Lieutenant Stone demanded brusquely if they had found the bullet.
“I need that bullet!” he explained, rising from his seat with an air of great authority.
The bullet was clearly somewhere in the room. They had to find it.
“Ask her… Ask the witness… Ask her if they've looked for it.”
“Have you looked for the bullet?”
“Yes, with the neighbors.”
“And you didn't find it?”
“I need that bullet!” Lieutenant Stone said again, with even more passion.
Lieutenant Bradford knelt in front of the door to examine the gash the bullet had made. What was its trajectory? In his opinion, we needed to look behind the wardrobe. Maybe even inside the wardrobe?
But the two women had already searched the wardrobe and hadn't found anything. They had looked everywhere, behind the stove, under the beds…
“I must have that bullet!”
I let them look for the bullet and went out into the courtyard.
A few neighboring farm people were out there, surrounding Joe, who had climbed out of the jeep and was offering them cigarettes. When he saw me, Joe came over to me, and the people followed him. One of them asked me if they had arrested the guy. I told him they had. They wanted to know who the officers were and what they were doing.
“Investigating. Right now they're looking for the bullet.”
Joe knew it was about a murder, but who was the murderer?
“A black man, Joe.”
“And the officers, who are they, Joe?”
“Military justice. Lieutenant Stone's the prosecutor. Lieutenant Bradford's the defense lawyer.”
I explained all that to the villagers. “And who are you?” one of them asked me.
“I'm an interpreter.”
“They're not bad guys, the two lieutenants, not bad guys at all,” Joe said…
A young man came up to me, looking embarrassed. He took an old wallet with a brass clasp out of his pocket and took the bullet out of it.
“Here's the bullet. I wanted to keep it as a souvenir, but I don't want any trouble…”
I took the bullet and went back into the house. I gave the bullet to Lieutenant Stone. He cried out, “I've found the bullet!”
Holding the bullet between his thumb and index finger he held it up to look at it and show it off. He put the bullet into his pocket and said, “Excellent!”
On the way back, the two lieutenants weren't at all silent. What a terrible case! Poor people! Poor father! How pitiful! And the murderer barely twenty years old! They'd hang him of course. No one could save him from that. Really terrible! But could you let people get raped and killed? And of course those young black idiots had bird brains. Always ready to go to hell for some white woman! For that they didn't even have to be drunk. And this one probably wasn't drunk that night. He had claimed not to be during his first interrogation. He claimed he never suspected there was anyone behind the door. He hadn't wanted to be mean, he only wanted to teach those people a lesson. When he started following the girl, his intentions were good. That's what he said. Hard to believe all the same. And yet—why not?
He claimed all he had ever wanted was to spend part of the evening with the girl. To have a drink. He would have kissed her if she had let him but that was all. As for the gun he had brought with him, don't forget that American soldiers were forbidden to go out unarmed because of snipers—German holdouts and others who were still roaming around the countryside.
He said he had gotten mad because they were afraid of him. Why were they afraid? Just because he was black? If they had opened the door and offered him a drink, if they hadn't treated him like a nigger… It's true they hadn't insulted him, but it was the same thing, and he knew, he knew. Those people would have opened their door to a white man.
Lieutenant Stone kept saying there was some truth to what he said but it was hard to believe it when you really knew blacks. They all said things like that in certain cases.
“Poor guy! But they're all terrible liars, believe me!”
We would come back to get the two women so that they could testify at the court-martial.
“Where did you find the bullet?” Lieutenant Bradford asked me.
“In a neighbor's wallet.”
When we were taking leave of one another in front of the city hall, the lieutenants thanked me and invited me to eat with them at the mess if I wanted to meet them at the girls' school at seven. Then we could go to the movies. They'd set up a movie house in the school's party room and they were showing really good films.
As nice as their invitation was, I didn't think I ought to accept. They didn't insist. They told me again how much I had helped them.
“You did a good job!”
They might come back and get me one of these days for another case, if I was willing.
“Goodnight then! See you soon, anyway.”
“Sure. See you soon. Goodnight.”
“Thanks. See you soon. Maybe tomorrow.”
“OK. Goodnight!” said Joe.
“OK,” said Lieutenant Stone, “OK, Joe.” And Joe shifted right into gear.
When I got back to the office, I discovered that while I was gone the local commander had come by to see me and that he'd be back the next day around noon. I also learned that a dance was scheduled that evening in the public gardens.
As I was leaving the city hall—it was around six in the evening—I found myself face to face with Bill, a young student from Chicago with whom I'd chatted the day before at the entrance to the girls' school—a huge, friendly guy. Only he was carrying a rifle.
He was coming to see if I wanted to go to the movies. I told him just what I had told the lieutenants.
“Thanks anyway, Bill.”
“Really good movies, though,” he told me. “So, did you see the lieutenants?”
“Yes I did. They came for me. Why are you carrying a rifle?”
“Orders. Because of snipers. Even if we're only going out for a short time. Well then! The lieutenants—they're good guys, aren't they? Nice guys.”
“I went with them.”
“Oh? Out on a case?”
“That's what I thought… or something like that. Are you going to stay with them?”
“I don't know, Bill. It's not exactly my line of work.”
“Why not? You make a really good interpreter, that's for sure.”
“Maybe. I don't know.”
“Oh, I see. And what about the victim? One of ours?”
“No. The murderer is. The victim is a farmer.”
“Oh! I'm sorry to hear that… Terrible. But it's the kind of thing you have to expect, unfortunately. A knife fight? Liquor?”
“No. A girl.”
“Oh, I see.”
When he learned the murderer was black he said,
“Oh, I see. You shouldn't give guns to those people. They're irresponsible, all of them. Are you going to see the lieutenants again?”
“OK, hope I see you again! I've got a lot to tell you… heaps. I think we'll be here for two or three more days. Are you sure you don't want to come to the movies with me?”
“No, Bill. Thanks though. Not tonight.”
“OK, that's fine. Goodnight then. Can you hear the music? What is it? A party?”
“Yes. A dance. In the public gardens.”
“Oh, I thought so. See you tomorrow, maybe.”
“See you tomorrow, Bill. Goodnight.”
“Tomorrow, I hope.”
We parted ways at the entrance to the girls' school. Bill ran. He didn't want to miss his film.
In front of the school it wasn't crowded like the night before. It was still too early. But yesterday things had looked like a village fair. A little crowd had gathered and a bunch of Americans were handing out cigarettes, candy, chewing gum, packets of Nescafé to people and joking with the girls. At the door to the school, two soldiers with their arms around each other's necks were singing and tap dancing. From time to time they'd stop and yell, “We're going to Berlin!”
“What a change,” someone next to me said.
Yes, quite a change from the German guards who had been posted at the same door just yesterday, with their machine guns under their arms, their two grenades in their belts, their dogs.
That was where I first met Bill, right there. A very nice fellow, Bill Cormier. His ancestors came from the Limoges region is what he'd told me first, and if he can he's going to go there to see if he has any cousins left.
He'd asked if I remembered ever seeing the American troops in France during the other war.
“I think they used to call them the 'Sammies,' remember that?”
“In 1917. I remember very well, we called them Uncle Sam's grandchildren.”
Bill had seen pictures. The Sammies wore big hats like boy scouts.
“That's right. And today we have helmets. We're not Sammies anymore; we're GIs.”
When he heard him talking about helmets, the fellow next to Bill said it was a good thing, since he owed his life to his helmet, and that the day he'd march with the army through the streets of Berlin he was going to paint the German word for “Jew” on his in white letters—“JUDE,” this big!—to make them see, those sons of bitches, those dirty bastards…
According to Bill, the ones in 1917 were pretty lucky because they didn't get sent to England first.
The Americans hadn't gotten a very good welcome over there, and the English girls were nothing but hussies.
“For sure! They don't even mind going out with blacks!”
Bill seemed like a very good boy, sweet, serious, really decent. A student. What was he studying?
“I'm studying law.”
For now he was in the Signal Corps. He didn't know how much longer they'd make their headquarters here, not more than a couple of days, but he really hoped to see me again. There was so much to talk about.
“Why not, Bill? Come by the city hall. Ask for the mayor's interpreter. I don't have much to do, you know.”
“OK. As soon as I can, I'd really like to. Listen, I'll tell you about our bishop.”
Just before the troops left for Europe there was a religious ceremony, and the bishop, admonishing the young soldiers, said to them: “My boys! If you're going over there to keep the world the way it is, then you might as well stay home! But if you're going to change the world, then go!”
Bill thought the bishop was damn right. They were going to change the world, that was for sure. Hitler was screwed. In two weeks Patton would be in Berlin.
… I let Bill run off to his movie, and I wandered down to a rotary at the end of the street and sat on a bench. Here, one step removed from the center of town, no one was around. That was what I wanted. And I still had some time left before I had to go back to the inn where I had been staying for nearly two months. My family was away in the country. This inn is an old-fashioned place; you can get food and drink, you can arrive on foot or by horseback, as the ancient signs on the wall still say, and there's a giant cork hanging over the door. The owner is a woman from the country who wears the traditional Breton headdress. It's called the Auberge de l'Espérance—the Inn of Hope. Nearly all the guests are construction workers: masons, plasterers, carpenters. I've always felt at home there.
It seemed as though I were sitting on that bench for the very first time, looking out onto the vast landscape of valley and fields with the sea in the distance, though it's a landscape I've known since childhood and have always loved. It felt different somehow, and yet I could see that nothing about it had visibly changed. There was still the same village clock, the same remains of an old feudal tower on a knoll, the same charming valley with a narrow creek flowing through it; I could hear the murmur of the water in the silence of the evening. How could I be watching it all with this feeling of indifference, how could I be sitting there so calmly on that bench—something I hadn't done for years? I was almost without thoughts, almost without memories, like a foreigner. I might have stood up, taken a few steps along the path that looked out over the valley, leaned over the railing to see the poplar trees along the stream below. But did I really want to? What was going on? Until now, despite the fatigue and the hardships of the past four years, I'd never experienced anything like this. Where did this uncanny sensation come from, like the fantastic vision I had one night just after the Liberation, when I passed by a wide open window and saw, in the bright light, an entire family having dinner around a table. That seemed incredible to me, and I told myself we would have to relearn many more things than we ever thought. And doing that would take time.
The war wasn't over. D-Day had been a success, but many Germans were still resisting, in Saint-Malo, in Brest, in Lorient. And Paris wasn't liberated yet. We'd have to wait a while longer before we could allow ourselves any new hope. And in the meantime, was I going to spend my days in that office in the city hall with nothing to do? Maybe the American lieutenants would come back and ask me to go out with them on some new case. It wasn't really my kind of thing. The memory of what I had seen and learned in the hamlet horrified me. Despite the pity I felt for the victims, and for the guilty party too, the one they were going to hang, I'd felt out of place. As for my own work—my writing—I'd lost interest in it ages ago.
Among the vague thoughts that passed through my head that night, what Bill had said about his bishop kept coming back to me: “My boys, if you're going over there to keep the world the way it is, then stay home, but if you're going to change the world, then go!” Yes, that bishop was right, but you didn't have to be a bishop…