My first novel, The Sixth Lamentation, deals with two time frames. The first presents the exploits of a group of Catholic students in Paris during the Nazi occupation of World War II. They call themselves The Round Table and smuggle Jewish children to a monastery in Burgundy. The students are betrayed, and only one person survives Agnes Aubret. The second time frame begins 50 years later. Agnes, now living in England, learns that she will soon die from a terminal illness. This terrible revelation comes on the same day that the German officer responsible for the fate of her compatriots is exposed hiding in a Gilbertine Priory. In due course a war crimes trial begins, and Agnes will either die vanquished or vindicated. The legal process flounders, however; there are secrets the participants will not reveal. Father Anselm, a monk in the community where the German officer sought refuge, is compelled to unravel the moral complexity of the past and bring an unexpected moment of redemption to Agnes before she dies.
It is perhaps a truism to state that a first novel is often a plundering of one’s past. This is certainly true of me, although the fields of memory I explored were not restricted to my own. In 1942 my mother was arrested by the Gestapo while smuggling a Jewish infant out of Amsterdam. The child was taken away and my mother was imprisoned. She survived the war; the child almost certainly did not. I had always been struck by the unimaginable antecedents to this dreadful incident: the anguish of the parents; the comprehensive nature of the Nazi project; and the need for extraordinary heroism from ordinary people in impossible circumstances. Thus, before I had any sense of the novel’s content, I pictured a group of students with their faces set against the times: a Round Table of chivalry in a world gone mad.
I moved the story to France because I thought the history of occupation and collaboration to be a powerful metaphor for the invasive presence of evil. Here was an Å½poque where cooperation and resistance were often blurred; where courageous acts were required from those who were most compromised; and where good, strong people sometimes failed despite best intentions. In many respects, it seemed to me, this was a model of human experience, writ large. And perhaps nowhere was the human confrontation with evil more starkly demonstrated than in the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 1942, when 4,051 children were separated from their parents before deportation to Auschwitz. From the outset, then, I wanted to present the agony of this history, along with the morally charged position of the bystander, whose only choice was opposition or compliance. I was as much concerned with the peculiar status of collaborators, who were sometimes in a position to influence their masters, as with resistantes, who were often powerless to intervene.
Much of my adult life has been spent as an Augustinian friar and then a barrister. Perhaps that is why I chose to explore the subject of this novel not through a re-enactment of the past, but through a present-day war crimes trial. This perspective had significant consequences: I was immediately free to explore how suffering can work its way through successive generations, such that the resolution of the past is profoundly necessary for those who were neither victims or witnesses; by using judicial procedure, the elements of the narrative are examined from an adversarial perspective, insinuating a sort of licensed scepticism that picks away at memories grown frail by the passage of time; the use of a religious context, and indeed the emphasis on the French experience, meant that the narrative had to unfold with reference to anti-Semitism in its political, theological and literary incarnations. It was my hope that all these complications personal, legal and moral could be gently touched upon in the tragic story of Agnes.
I wrote the novel after the first (and probably last) war crimes prosecution under British law and during the Irving v. Penguin libel trial. Lost retribution and Holocaust denial were thus painfully before my mind. The voices of the witnesses were fading away. All of which suggests this book is a testament of sorts, but not mine. It is in part, the handing on of someone else’s memory. A native of England, William Brodrick became an Augustinian friar at the age of 19. Leaving religious life six years later, he worked with homeless people and then became a lawyer. His first novel, The Sixth Lamentation is being published this month by Viking. Brodrick lives in Normandy, France with his wife and three children.