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A few months ago I was standing in the Post Office line, right here in Albuquerque, and there was an "elderly" lady behind me, talking to another, about her recent trip to the Czech Republic. The conversation revealed that she had a bit of an "edge" to her. On her trip, which was apparently a trip "home," she had explained to the Czech officials that although born and raised there, she did not speak any Czech, she spoke only German and English. I turn and looked at her, and I did know who she was: a Sudeten German. And their expulsion after World War II eventually led this woman to what we tend to call the Land of Enchantment. No doubt, another story.

I first read Sartre's trilogy, "Roads to Freedom" some 40 years ago. This is the middle volume, preceded by The Age of Reason (Penguin Modern Classics) and followed by Troubled Sleep (Chemins de la Liberte = The Roads To Freedom) The entire novel concerns events in the lives of about 30 individuals, almost all of whom are French, during one week at the end of September, 1938. It was the week that Europe mobilized for war. The issue: the woman in the Post Office, and around 3 million of her compatriots, the Sudeten Germans. Sartre places the supporting arguments in the mouth of Jacques, brother of Mathieu. Democracy, self-determination, plebiscites. Arrogant Czech officials are oppressing the Sudetens. Why shouldn't they have the right to join the Reich if they want to? And didn't Hitler promise that this was "his last territorial demand in Europe"?

In terms of the scope and breadth of characters, Sartre's choices provide a dazzling spectrum. There is Gros-Louis, a giant of a man, an illiterate shepherd who washes up in Marseilles. Charles Darrieux is a casualty of WW I, an invalid confined to a stretcher, in a hospital up north, near the border, who must be evacuated, and is fearful of losing his favorite nurse, Jeannine. There is the Professor of Philosophy, Mathieu Delarue, on vacation, late in the season, at Juan-les-Pins. Francois Hannequin is a Pharmacist from St. Flour, in the Auvergne. Boris and Lola are vacationing at Biarritz. The youthful Philippe, in full rebellion mode, against his step-father, General Lacaze, and who proclaims his pacifism in the streets, with negative results. Daniel is a pederast, who realizes the "mark of Cain" is upon him. Sartre waits until more than half way before introducing the French Prime Minister, Edouard Daladier. Chamberlin, Hitler and Mussolini are also in the background. And of the non-French, there are Milan Hlinka, and his wife, Anna, Czechs living in the "Sudetenland." And Col. Gomez, still in fighting mode with the Spanish Republican Army.

Sartre is a true master in handling his characters, revealing a complete range of emotions and attitudes to the coming war; predominate being a sense of resignation to another war 20 years after the "war to end all wars." But there is also anticipation, the thought of a "holiday" from unhappy personal situations, and even the women who are glad to see their "significant others" go away. And there are those who cannot find Czechoslovakia on a map, proving that it is not only Americans who have "geographic deficiencies." What sets this novel apart are the switches Sartre makes from one character to the next, sometimes within the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence. It did make it difficult to follow 40 years ago; it was far less so on this re-read, since it is much easier to follow if you know France, and the hints of location Sartre makes, as well as the historical context. The "blending" of lives, using this technique, is one of the true strengths of this novel.

For sure, Sartre has his critics, and there is a reasonable basis for criticism: a willingness to overlook or even support Stalinism, his treatment of Simone de Beauvoir (and yes, her willingness to accept such treatment is another matter) and the image of a "pointy-headed" and alas, wall-eyed, Left Bank intellectual pontificating in an obtuse jargon only 10 other people in the world could truly understand. But this novel belies so much of the critic's image of him. He truly understands France, and has immense insights into the human condition of a broad variety of individuals. And his prose is brilliant. So, if you must, tape over his name on the cover, but read this book; even re-read it for I found it all the better the second time around. 6-stars.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on March 07, 2011)
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on 21 April 2003
The Reprieve is a stunning, dazzling novel; Sartre's most powerful, yet subtle and complex. In a few hundred pages, many stories are told in such depth and with such tender feeling as to distinguish the novel alone, but at the same time the narrative offers so much more, both philosophically and literarily.
It is written in fluctuating, unique prose, different scenes cobbled artistically and aptly into single sentences, the prose vacillating between many diverse scenarios, settings and characters, providing a quite awe-inspiring juxtaposition of ideas and concepts. Each facet, melded by Sartre's unceasing genius, works in union whilst simultaneously amazing one on its own.
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on 16 May 2012
This third book in Sartre's trilogy documents several interlocking lives in and around WWII and explores a central theme in existentialism: what kind of decisions can we make as free individuals? Do you act or just sit back, passive."Ultimately a man is born for war or peace". That scares me.
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