Deception in Paris


Deception in Paris

IHETTE SENEKAL read Bryn Turnbull's new novel about looted art during the Nazi occupation — and two women's fight to save it.


BRYN Turnbull is a Canadian writer who made a name for herself during the time of Covid with her international bestsellers The Woman Before Wallis (2020) and The Last Grand Duchess (2022). In 2023, her third historical novel, The Paris Deception, is published.

The story unfolds in Paris during World War 2, a setting that has captivated the imagination of many novelists and readers. It portrays two sisters-in-law, an interesting relationship to explore as a central theme, who are determined to save precious artworks from the clutches of the Nazis.

Sophie is the introverted one, an art restorer working at the Jeu de Paume, and Fabienne is an artist who must depend on the favours of German soldiers and later the jewellery business to survive the war. Fabienne reveals that “beauty was a currency more valuable than the franc, and Paris was filled with Germans more than willing to pay for the pleasure of a beautiful woman's company".

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The narrative perspective in the novel alternates between the two main characters, supplemented with flashbacks that gradually reveal the shared loss that binds them. Sophie and Fabienne's love for art, especially modern art — the kind Hitler labelled degenerate — leads Sophie and Fabienne to repeatedly risk their lives for a greater ideal. Think The Monuments Men (the 2014 film) without the humour, The Thomas Crown Affair without the sexual tension, and Ocean's Eleven without George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

The novel touches on themes such as discrimination against women and certain population groups, the consequences of war, the loss of a loved one and a child, relationships between women and within families, homosexuality in the first half of the 1900s, the fashion industry in 1940s Paris, the champagne industry during World War 2, art and art appreciation, ownership of artworks, and the abuse of power by the Nazis during wartime.

The consequences, good and bad, of principles are the foundation on which the novel is built. When Sophie deliberates whether to continue with her restoration work, it's the words of her deceased brother that come to mind: “He would have told her that principles were what mattered, in the end; that principles, above all else, were more important than ever in times of war. After all, they were what wars were fought for."

Turnbull clearly researched her subject and mentioned in interviews that she visited Paris before writing the novel. However, the city fades into the background and could have been portrayed in a more tangible manner. On the other hand, the tension of the war is more prominent and at times makes the reader pause for breath. And although I think it could have been consistently better used, one or two consequences of this tension caught me unexpectedly and pleasantly surprised me.

Conversely, there are many descriptions and events that may make you roll your eyes, and at times a touch too much sentimentality.

The characters are a mix of historical figures and fictional people. In Turnbull's first two novels, she used a historical figure as the main character, but in The Paris Deception she employs two fictional women as the pivotal figures. This choice particularly puzzles me. You see, there was a flesh-and-blood woman, Rose Valland, who worked at the Jeu de Paume for years. During the Nazi occupation, she meticulously recorded artworks the Nazis looted across France before bringing them to the museum, which they used as their central storage and sorting depot. From there, they sent them to their own homes or to the museum Hitler wanted to establish in Linz, Austria. This information is indeed included in the novel, and it has a character named Rose Valland. However, she mostly remains in the background. It is Sophie who takes the lead, working to replace precious artworks in the museum with the forgeries Fabienne creates.

This storyline is  interesting and provides most of the suspense, but I can't help wondering: what about Rose Valland? Why did Turnbull deviate from her methodology of using an historical figure as the main character? Was Valland's story not interesting enough? Or is she simply not sexy enough to be a main character? Even in The Monuments Men, Valland doesn't receive the recognition she deserves. In the film, a character named Claire Simone is brought in to depict Valland's role in preserving “degenerate art". Simone is played by Cate Blanchett, and in the film she is coerced into throwing herself at James Granger, played by Matt Damon. Granger also makes a brief appearance in The Paris Deception, but fortunately, no fictionalised advances are made in his direction this time.

In The Monuments Men, Valland, a lesbian, is so misrepresented that she is portrayed as yearning after Granger. In The Paris Deception, there is at least a nod towards Valland's sexual preference as Sophie, who embodies many of Valland's characteristics and experiences, still harbours a secret admiration for a female classmate.

What I did enjoy in the novel are the many references to real artworks and the exposure it provides to the art world within a troubled context. It is also ironically amusing that Fabienne, who grew up on a champagne estate, returns to her parental home where bottle after bottle of champagne is consumed at a time when there is scarcely any food available. It serves as a stark reminder that war completely distorts the usual rules.

The Paris Deception is mediocre and inconsistent, but still interesting and enjoyable. Its value lies more in the discussion it may provoke about the worth of art. In the South African context, art is no longer considered significant in society.  During the struggle era, it was said, “how can one write about trees when the land is burning?" and the same could probably be asked the determination of Turnbull's characters to protect art, even at the expense of lives.

In The Monuments Men, Frank Stokes says: “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they'll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it's as if they never existed." In this lies the insight that art is worth fighting for, even — or especially — in dark times. Although it's not humanly possible to save everything that's lost, there is hope to be found in those who are willing to do something. In Sophie's words: “We'll save what we can. All of it, for those that we've lost."

Who, what, where and how much?

The Paris Deception by Bryn Turnbull as published by Headline Publishing Group and costs R400 at Exclusive Books

♦ VWB ♦

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