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VINE VOICEon 20 November 2008
This is a very well written novel, exploring the nature of loyalty and collaboration and the difficult choices people have to make. No doubt many people in France had to make such choices in 1940 and it was never easy, but I did feel that the author, through his characters, was a little TOO soft on the adherents of the Vichy regime. I found the characters mostly rather unsympathetic. The attitude of so many French people at this time is vividly drawn and depressing - a mixture of fatalism at the impending German invasion and grudging respect for German success, plus an alarming level of anti-semitism among ordinary French people. This was certainly not an uplifting read, though very thought provoking.
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on 27 July 2012
There are probably not many novels which can be called 'important' meaning not just worthwhile, entertaining or brilliantly written but speaking to central themes of the human condition. This, I think, is one. It explores the complexities of loyalty and moral choice within the context of WW2 France, but its significance transcends that context. It is a beautifully drawn portrait of those complexities but is much else besides: a gossamer-delicate rumination on ageing, on families and on first love. But the context does matter, too, and I have recommended it to several French friends all of whom have been struck by its capacity to speak to the still controversial legacy of the occupation. One of those friends was particularly amazed to find that the cover illustration (on the edition I sent her) was a photo in which one of the background figures was her father!

It is the only book which I have ever re-read immediately after finishing. I honestly think that it is one of the most significant novels to have been written in the 20th century. A note of caution, though. Inevitably having enjoyed it so much I sought out Massie's other novels and, although some of them are very good, none of them approach this one.
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on 8 May 2011
This excellent novel provides remarkable insight into a very difficult period. The challenges of managing to survive in the lethal atmosphere of Vichy France are brilliantly described by Alan Massie. There was no opportunity, unless for the suicidal, to be uncompromising with the German presence. The activities of the underground which will no doubt become more evident as the series continues will always be nuanced by internal politics and external division between a number of factions.

A superb, if tense, read.
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on 16 January 2014
This novel explores political ideas and ideals. It is set in the moral swamp of Vichy France.
Lucien de Balafré is a writer, former diplomat and sometime soldier. He stands on the right of the political spectrum, disliking the liberal politics of the Third Republic but despising Bolshevism even more. He is also anti-Semitic. After the debacle of June 1940 he joins Petain.
The novel is narrated in the late 1980s by Lucien's son, Etienne, but much of it the words of his father from notebooks he wrote at the time. The narrative takes us through to Lucien's fate in 1944, but essentially this is a novel of thought and reflection, not action.
History has condemned Vichy, as well as executing its leading lights. So why should we care about Lucien as he wrestles with is ideas of what is morally right. But as not every German was a Nazi, so not every supporter of Vichy was a fascist. Balafre's political position is not odious, nor are his ideas fixed. He seems to be genuinely looking to rescue something worthwhile from the carnage of 1940. Again he demonstrates personal honesty and honour. He does fair by people on an individual basis - he helps those who would betray him.
Furthermore by placing Lucien's writing - apologia even - at one remove we are enabled to look more coolly at the arguments. His concern to do what is right, in circumstances not of his own choosing, is made evident especially in the last part of his life.
That said, Petain, too, and even Laval appear less culpable than usually portrayed. Conversely, the Resistance is not as pure as painted. Nothing is as clear and certain as we would imagine it to be. At times I did find the author - or more accurately his character - too sympathetic to the occupiers of France. Balafre - like Petain - sees possibilities in the "German Revolution" for France and the whole of Europe. Hitler was as it were the fly in the ointment.
The book focuses on the intellectuals. It is not obscure, but it is more about thinking than doing. Without notes the reader would need to know something about this period.
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VINE VOICEon 21 May 2014
In the Bordeaux trilogy Alan Massie deals brilliantly with many of the conflicting issues that weighed heavily upon the people who lived in Vichy France. The fact that they were wrapped in a crime and espionage format made them very readable without in the least diminishing the seriousness of the theme.

Loyalty to the author led me to A Question of Loyalties, and it pains me to say that I eventually gave up at about half way. The episodic construction and the challenging chronology were too demanding for this reader. There is a sensitive portrayal of a youthful love affair but it is bucketed by sections which seem designed to show off the author's knowledge of French literature. At times the book reads like a series of set pieces only roughly connected to each other.

Perhaps by the end the narrative spine of the story would have become apparent but it might have been easier to arrive there. I thin
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on 1 May 2014
A book centred on a Frenchman who became a junior minister in the Vichy regime. A very literary novel, clearly heavily influenced by the many modern French novels dealing with loyalty and betrayal during WW2. There were a few places where I felt the writing over-erudite, or where the tone slipped. There was one page or so of simplistic satire about Vichy politics which seemed incongruous, and one sentence which read like a parody of existentialism and had me in stitches of laughter as it seemed so out of place. The novel explores how to maintain loyalty in times where all choices seem bad. I quite enjoyed it.
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A fine novel by gifted writer and journalist, Allan Massie, that explores the moral dilemmas posed for Frenchmen after the WWII occupation of their country by the Germans and the subsequent formation of a collaborationist government under Marshall Petain in Vichy. The story focuses on Lucien de Balafre, an intellectual, diplomat manque, publisher and ultimately, member of the Vichy regime and his son Etienne, a South African businessman who tries to reconstruct his father's life and political and moral motivations in the post WWII years (long after his unexplained death in 1944).

Author Massie has created some wonderfully compelling characters in "Question..." that display a skillful insight into the range of human behavior under many kinds of stress, including the pressure of war, the disillusionment of defeat and the continuing threat of immediate danger and death. The lead subject, Lucien de Balafre, seems to represent a man out of his time--a conservative who nevertheless has Europeanist tendencies in the 1930s; a strong skeptic of Nazism and Fascism, but who harbors an even stronger fear of Communism. Eventually, he is a decent man who makes takes the wrong path (in the view of history) to mitigate the most harmful and corrosive elements at work during the occupation of his country.

As Etienne de Malafre, with plenty of personal baggage of his own, is reluctantly drawn into his father's history, he has to confront some interesting parallels for himself and his own family in contemporary (1986) South Africa.

"A Question of Loyalties" is highly credible account of what was happening beyond the battle headlines in an allied country under occupation. There are few false notes here and some wonderful dialogue and individual stories how people were affected by the war. Recommended.

Also of note: some 30+ years after the publishing of this book, Allan Massie has created a new series covering the same wartime period in France. The new books start with "Death in Bordeaux" and a sequel, "A Dark Summer in Bordeaux". The writing is leaner and the books are closer to the mystery genre, but they are quite good.
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VINE VOICEon 26 October 2014
It’s a long time since a book has made me think as much as this one did. Massie explores the question of patriotism and integrity through the different paths that two brothers choose when France falls to Germany in WW2. Lucien, an intellectual who respects Pétain from his record in WW1, decides to join the government of Vichy France while his brother Armand joins De Gaulle’s Free French Forces. Both feel they are acting in the best interests of France. It is rare that a writer puts forward the case for those who supported Vichy France but Massie does so to considerable effect reminding the reader that at the time no-one could guess the outcome of the war. Indeed as we know many were those who switched sides when they saw which way the wind was blowing.
The plot and structure are extremely complicated with a long list of characters and locations – I wish I had made notes of the significant names when I started out. The story unfolds through a series of documents as Etienne attempts to discover the mystery surrounding his father’s death at the end of the war and the contempt in which he seems to be held. His father believed he was doing what was in France’s best interests, while supporting the plot to assassinate Hitler, and becoming a confidant of Laval. His fear was that communism was a greater threat than fascism so he closed his eyes to the horrors of the Hitler regime.
Etienne is advised to “tell [your daughter] how we can never judge what’s right, and how our best intentions are corrupted”. This is at the heart of the moral dilemmas faced by these characters viewing things only from their own, often narrow, perspectives.
There are rather too many coincidences at the end of the novel, and it’s a challenging read but well written.
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on 9 January 2012
It's not often that one finishes a novel and wants to read it again immediately. This story of one man's pursuit of the truth of what his father did in the war (he was in Vichy) is most elegantly understated. If the story is good, the telling of it is even better - a most beautifully written novel with a lot of learning worn very lightly.
A real pleasure to come for those who have not read it.
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on 14 December 2014
I highly recommend this novel. It is a deeply involving story in which Massie uses one man's life lived through and involved in the drama of the second world war and in particular life in Vichy France. It contains lyrical passages that, at times, rise to poetic levels but always hinting at shadows behind. Look out for the account of a ride on horseback across the South African Veldt at dawn; told as apparent nostalgia but ending with an allusion that spells loss and grief. The manipulation of time and place is masterly and if the overall tone is tough and despairing, the last section (perhaps a little too long-if so, the only fault) suggests the possibility of reclaiming a little of what has been for so long lost.
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