Some years ago Markus was looking for a birthday present for his mother. Knowing that she loved our part of the Ardèche and enjoyed reading in French he was delighted to come across a novel in the local bookshop which seemed to fit the bill perfectly. St Boniface et ses Juifs was written by an émigré Hungarian-Polish couple, Ladislas and Natalie Gara, who had abandoned their life in literary Paris after the French armistice with Germany in 1940 and sought refuge, with their little daughter, in the folded hills and isolated farmsteads of the Ardèche. They wrote a lightly fictionalised account of their experiences in the Free Zone, which was part of Vichy France until Germany’s complete occupation of the country in 1942. Their book was published to critical acclaim in 1946 and re issued in 1999.
Having read and enjoyed the book Markus’s mother returned it to us, saying not only that we should read it, but that it should be kept at our house, so closely does it evoke the landscape and way of life in the towns hamlets and villages which surround us.
We immediately fell under the spell of St Boniface. The depiction of characters and situations, locations and terrain, the keen observation, insights and allusions which the authors deploy in their witty and engaging account of life in the fragile Free Zone charmed us at once. Add in a few really weird coincidences, such as a couple of characters who lived in our street in pre-war Paris and then moved to the street where Kate previously had a flat, and the fact that we could easily identify the Ardèche action as taking place in our immediate surroundings – a key character is named Sarzier – and we were totally hooked.
This was the year when Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was taking the English speaking world by storm. Everyone’s interest was focussed on this troubled and un-talked-off moment in recent French history and the amazing emergence of an authentic voice, speaking directly to us from the chaos of that period. We were convinced that St Boniface, written contemporaneously with Suite Française but in this case a story of survival, written by survivors, would find a ready audience among English readers.
Enter our friend Bill Reed, who agreed to undertake the translation of St Boniface, completely on spec and, what is more, agreed to our involvement in the translation. The past six years have been for us, the most wonderful adventure in collaboration and discovery which will culminate on July 26th with the publication by Hesperus Press of Bill’s translation of St Boniface et ses Juifs under the title Welcome to the Free Zone. We are tremendously excited to know that this great book is set to reach a whole new readership and are looking forward to the next episode of the adventure.