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The Quilty Reader

Lawyer, mother, avid reader. Game host extraordinaire! Partner in crime to Obsidian Black Plague! My bookish weaknesses include classics, fantasy, YA, and agreeing to read more books than is even remotely possible.

Those who forget the past

Assignment in Brittany - Helen MacInnes

Are doomed to repeat it.


I grew up reading the spy novels of Helen MacInnes, so reading them is a definite comfort read for me, even with their outdated gender stereotypes and often frustratingly regressive relationships. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one who remembers the Cold War, given our current government's flirtation with fascism, and the fact that many of them seem more than willing to climb into bed with dictators and strongmen world wide. This is puzzling to me. There is no historical moment in which the Nazis and the fascists were the good guys.


Helen MacInnes knew this. Reading this at the same time that Charlottesville happened was an odd piece of serendipitous timing.


There was the tragedy of it: if only they could have realised the danger while there was still time, while they were still free to carry a gun and still free to make guns for themselves. Instead, they would now find that it costs three times as much to retrieve a position as it takes to hold it.


Assignment in Brittany was her second novel, first published in 1941, in the midst of WWII. It was considered to be so realistic a portrayal of occupied France that allied agents were required to read it before attempting to infiltrate France, the knowledge of which gives the book a verisimilitude that renders it all that much more compelling.


It begins with a rather silly conceit. Hearne, the main character, is a dead ringer for a Breton prisoner, Bernard Corlay. He is given the assignment of impersoning Corlay to try to send back work from Brittany as to what the Nazis are up to on the French coast. The novel opens with Hearne parachuting into occupied France. He makes his way to Corlay's village to assume his identity, and slowly comes to realize that Corlay has not shared with him that Corlay is secretly a Nazi sympathizer, involved in promoting Nazi activities.


One of the main complaints about this book in other reviews revolves around the implausibility of Hearne being able to fool his mother, his mistress and his fiancee. While this could be a legitimate complaint, the reality is that he didn't fool his mother or his fiancee. They both realized the truth without much delay, but kept his secret because, like him, they were part of the Resistance, version 1.0.


This is a reminder that hashtag Resistance didn't start in 2016. 


MacInnes never allows the reader to forget that oppression begins by inches. That it is better to fight from the beginning than to try to regain ground that has been lost. That those in power seek to retain power using whatever means possible, even if that means might involve collaborating with, even, Nazis. That there are no principles that some people won't sell out to consolidate authority or obtain cash and prizes.


He’s a great Christian by his way of it, and I have never professed to be one. Yet the one aim in his life is to hang on to the possessions he has got. Worldly possessions. If I remember my New Testament correctly, worldly possessions weren’t held in great esteem. In fact, if a man gives up honour or humanity for the sake of what he owns, then he is betraying the principles of Christianity. When I watch the Picrels scrabbling at German feet for the sake of their property, do you know what I believe? I believe that if Christ came back today and preached to the people, the Picrels among them would have Him up against the wall.


She might as well be talking about the American evangelical church leaders here. Jerry Falwell, is that you?


The past isn't over. It isn't even past. Here we are, again, in 2017, having the same arguments that we were having in 1941.