Welcome to the Free Zone

Written by Ladislas Gara Nathalie Gara
Review by Sarah Bower

In 1942, the village of Saint-Boniface in the Ardèche, in the French Free Zone established after the 1940 armistice, plays host to a motley assortment of refugees. There is the Russian Countess Prokoff, who is not respectable because she goes to the cinema. Her lover plays Mozart superbly but has strange ideas about shirt-tails and underwear. Madame Cleps, a former film star, scandalises the community by wearing turbans and trousers and has a morbid terror of running out of cigarettes. Several Jewish families are “guests” of the local farmers, coping with varying degrees of resourcefulness with rationing, exploitation and forged papers. Among them are Tibor and Ellen Veres and their two children, thinly disguised versions of the authors, just as this novel is a thinly disguised memoir of their wartime experience.

Full of acute observation and waspish humour reminiscent of E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories, the novel sheds light on a world far from Resistance derring-do. The progress of the war here disappears almost completely from view as the villagers expend all their energy and ingenuity on circumventing the rationing laws. Saint-Boniface is a hotbed of secret mills and butter churns, and deals as complex as anything the City of London could contrive involving nails, glycerine suppositories, illegal pigs and ersatz Pernod. As the Germans advance through France, all that matters to anyone in Saint-Boniface is the potato harvest.

Sensitively translated by Bill Reed, Welcome to the Free Zone is funny and brutal, tragic yet infused with hard, rural pragmatism, and offers an original and spellbinding insight into the world behind the war.