If and when The Saboteur gets made into a major motion picture, an action-smacked WWII spy flick for the ages, the screenwriter will likely find the story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld easy to visualize. So will the costume and set designers. Paul Kix, author of the new book about “the aristocrat who became France’s most daring anti-Nazi commando,” already did the heavy lifting, providing more particulars in 227 pages than most academic historians do in backbreaking tomes.
The extensive effort, which brought the author to five countries in four years, was well warranted. Like so many masters of deep research and compelling narrative historical nonfiction before him, Kix leaves very little for the reader to imagine on their own. Some of the descriptions are extremely terrifying, starting with the image of “three columns of German tanks stretching back for more than one hundred miles” early on, but they’re also necessary if one is to understand the plight of the protagonist.
A tall and handsome aristocrat of particular note, La Rochefoucauld had the sort of pedigree that’s not available in the US. With ancestors including a duke in Louis XVI’s court, the founder of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks (who, as Kix notes, “abolished slavery some seventy years before it could be done in the United States”), and military icons who fought in the Hundred Years’ War and the Crusades, among other exceptional Frenchmen, La Rochefoucauld saw no choice but to put his own life behind enemy lines to help lead his beloved France out of the German occupation.
Even before the excitement and terror of combat and capture kicks in, Kix tugs at the reader with his explanation of the menacing prerequisites for righteous subversion, which in this case the hero learns in training with a secret British military outfit out to hobble Hitler with guerilla tactics. Illustrating a scene in which La Rochefoucauld is learning from ex-Shanghai policemen who were employed to school agents in “gutter fighting” and “Silent Killing” techniques like “jamming … fingers into the enemy’s eyes,” the author offers several scenes that beg for a Tinsel Town treatment:
In the war’s early years, by way of introduction, the pair would stand at the top of a staircase … a class of agents sitting below, and would fall down the steps, tumbling to the bottom and landing in a battle crouch position, a gun in one hand and a knife in the other. They would then rise, so the prospective agents could take their measure.
La Rochefoucauld was one of those insanely dashing overachievers who accomplished more in an average week than your typical Joe Foucauld does in a lifetime. From his recruitment to surviving through desertion and living to tell the tale, it’s hard to imagine how the guy ever slept, especially since Kix presents such a voluminous wartime timeline. (Having once written a feature for Kix back when he was an editor at Boston Magazine, I can say from personal experience that his eye for critical minutiae is second to no other editor I have collaborated with; in delivering this book, he certainly applied that sensibility to his own work.)
And yet for all the detail around one character, the story arc is firmly grounded in the larger breadth of WWII, no small occurence for any reporter to truncate. While The Saboteur is sure to spur some readers to dig further into several of the resources that the author relied on, the book itself requires no outside explainers. Kix provides the quick and necessary context where it’s needed, never letting background details overshadow the MacGyver shit unfolding in chapter after chapter, making for a damn exhilarating page-turning experience with no interruptions. Besides one…
While Kix began collecting notes for The Saboteur long before Donald Trump became president, it’s impossible to read about the brave souls who fought Nazis in the 1940s without pondering the modern parallels. Kix doesn’t wink or pander for a second; still, certain sections could apply to the state of affairs that Americans—and people all around the world, for that matter—are experiencing in some way or another. If ever faced with devastating terror like the French were under German occupation, all decent people like to think we’d side with the resistance to fight and sabotage Nazis. As Kix shows, though, such commitments take more than just a little bit of courage.
Paul Kix reads from The Saboteur at Brookline Booksmith on Tues 2.27 at 7pm.