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A Strong 'Statement' : Novelist Brian Moore Mixes Fact and Fiction to Explore Faith, Evil and Mercy

August 07, 1996|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Malibu novelist Brian Moore has sketched the face of evil, and it is a tired old man with bad teeth.

What's more, the old man lives. Or he did until recently.

In his 18th novel, "The Statement" (Dutton, 1996), Moore gives us Pierre Broussard, a geriatric Nazi whose enemies, after decades on the chase, are finally getting close.

While "The Statement" succeeds as a work of fiction--the book is in its fifth printing and is ranked in the top 10 on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list--Moore has drawn deeply from real life.

"The Statement" closely tracks the bizarre case of Paul Touvier, a once virulent fascist nabbed as a doddering old man in 1989 in a French monastery. Touvier died recently in a French prison at 81.

Now Moore, whose commercial success has never quite matched his critical esteem, is smiling broadly on the results.

"Writing a book like this gave me a chance to say things, and keep moving," Moore said in a recent interview from his summer home in Nova Scotia. "Many people are not going to read a book like this unless it succeeds as pure entertainment."

Moore, who is 74, has done this sort of thing before. His novels have often wrapped tricky moral dilemmas around compelling story lines drawn from the news.

In "Lies of Silence," a Belfast hotel manager plots his escape from his dreary city, only to find his plans complicated when the IRA kidnaps his dreary wife. In "No Other Life," a young priest in a place that seems very much like Haiti rises from poverty to great power, a trek that challenges the tenets of his Catholicism.

In "The Statement," Moore takes us to contemporary France, a country still unreconciled to the collaboration of many of its most respectable citizens during the German occupation. Drawing on the Touvier case, Moore presents a vivid portrait of modern France and a story that illuminates troubling questions about faith, collaboration, evil and mercy.

It is a measure of the realism of Moore's story--and the unforgiving way he tells it--that despite the book's success on both sides of the Atlantic, no French publisher has yet stepped forward to print "The Statement."

"They say they won't publish it because it is a mixture of fact and fiction," Moore said.

He says he could have written a tome of nonfiction, but he figured it would likely remain on the shelf. "The Statement" poses the questions and ponders the issues, but in a plot as fast and unpredictable as a getaway car.

"I wanted to write a moral thriller," said Moore, a Catholic by birth but not by practice. "If this book works, it is because it breaks the boundaries between politics and literature."

Broussard, the novel's protagonist, is the vehicle for Moore's statement. As a young Aryan-looking officer in a pro-Nazi French militia, Broussard not only cooperated with the German occupiers but committed atrocities against the Jewish population. He was once indicted for war crimes, but for 45 years he has lived a free man, thanks largely to aid and comfort of certain elements of the Catholic Church.

And now, well into his 70s, Broussard finds his eyesight failing. His heart is ailing. He is an unrepentant Nazi and devout Catholic. He still lusts at the site of a naked breast. Broussard feels pity, but mostly for himself.

And he will not leave France.

*

"I said no. I didn't want to be like [Klaus] Barbie in some South American backwater, peddling his ass as a secret policeman for a cheap little South American dictator, speaking Spanish, eating that greasy meteque food. I love France, it's my country, they are not going to drive me out of my own country. I'll die in France!"

They, of course, are the Jews.

But time is running out. A French court has indicted Broussard on new charges, crimes against humanity, and prosecutors are at last serious about tracking him down. At the same time, a group claiming to be acting on behalf of Broussard's victims have dispatched assassins to hunt the old man down and kill him.

The hit-men carry with them a statement, which they are supposed to attach to Broussard's body upon his death.

"The dead are now avenged," the statement says. "This case is now closed."

Fantastic as the story seems, Moore did not make it all up. Moore drew heavily on the case of Touvier, a militia chief in the collaborationist Vichy government in southern France. Touvier ordered the execution of seven Jews after the killing of a high Vichy official by Resistance fighters.

Like Broussard, Touvier relied on the deep divisions in postwar France to stay free for four decades. He was protected by high officials in the French government who wished to bury the past. In 1971, he even received a pardon--which was later revoked--from President Georges Pompidou.

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