When you commit to reading a trilogy you know that unless something unforeseen happens you are going to see it through to the end and the decision to read the second book was nowhere near as important as the move made to read the first.
But Jean-Paul Sartre does his best with The Reprieve to make you wonder if it is worth sticking with the Roads to Freedom trilogy. Written in a way that is difficult to follow, populated with numerous characters and dispensing with some of the page furniture and breaks – chapters, asterisks and spaces – that would make it slightly easier to follow makes this a harder book to stick with. But, and it is an important but, if the aim of the writing is to transmit the sense of fear, panic and confusion that existed in the run up to the second world war, then it succeeds.
The book starts with the politicians surrounding British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waiting for an audience with Hitler to try and defuse the rising tension about the German leader’s territorial claims in Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile the diplomatic process grips the French because they have an agreement with Czechoslovakia to come to its aid if it is attacked. The narrative follows the course of the week that led up to the Munich agreement, where in an effort to maintain peace in Europe the Czech’s were betrayed by their British and French allies. Over the course of the week the French reservists, including Mathieu (the main character from the first book) are called up and the book holds up a mirror not just to national uncertainty but also that of a handful of characters ranging from those determined to fight and die (Boris) to those at the other end of the spectrum arguing for peace (Philippe). In the end nothing is resolved and although the French people believe war has been averted those in transit to join up with the army or prepare for loss and pain are still left in a partial limbo.
Is it well written?
As already mentioned this is a difficult book to get through because a description of one character in a situation will run straight into another. The reader has to work very hard to concentrate and stick with the numerous characters as well as the political developments happening in the background. It works well as an almost metaphorical description of the confusion of war but as a narrative is perhaps in some places unnecessarily confusing. One work colleague admitted that he had started the book then given up on it. That is the risk that Sartre takes because the third book Iron in the Soul has a different feel again more similar to The Age of Reason.
Should it be read?
If you are reading the trilogy then obviously missing this out would detract by in an odd way it would be possible to skip it because it concerns one week and the main characters are reintroduced in the third volume. But it is a reminder that the fears of Hitler were causing disturbances well before he started to advance with troops and tanks across the French border. It is also a good illustration of how the prospect of an impending conflict or major event can cause people to react differently. Another book that reminds you of the myriad of responses is The Plague by Albert Camus and the sense they both have in common is of people being trapped. The Reprieve is about the claw back from war and the reprieve the main characters and the country has from bloodshed but as the French Prime Minister mutters at the end of the book it is nothing of the sort and just delays the war. The challenge constantly to the reader is how they would react, and this is picked up even more in the final volume. Would you be a coward? Rally to the flag and support your allies? Or view the potential conflict as something that you might be able to make personal gain out of? From start to finish the reader is challenged on every level to stick with the book, empathise with the confusion and suffering and constantly wonder just how they would have reacted.
War is postponed by in the week waiting for the reprieve the country and the people display a number of reactions that cover most parts of the spectrum, including the fatalist existentialist one you would expect from a Sartre novel.
Version read – Penguin Modern Classics paperback