The Mercy Room
Women’s bodies could never be as exciting as books. That’s the credo the language-mad German teacher living in occupied France—and the narrator at the center of Gilles Rozier’s novella The Mercy Room—maintains. Some of his disdain might come from having to hear his slatternly sister’s SS lover plow into her noisily in the bedroom above, but mostly it’s natural apathy. What’s so interesting about his long-suffering wife Jude, anyway? She can’t pronounce ich correctly—her French accent makes it a mushy ish instead—and she has no mind for books. Hans-Joachim, his beautiful former schoolmate, now he had the grace necessary for literature. When he read Death in Venice aloud it was like the angels singing. That’s the power of Mann’s prose—or was it? If so, then why does the narrator’s heart skip a beat when Herman, the blue-eyed soldier assigned to bring him documents for translation, softly hums Chopin while standing at attention in his office? And what wellspring of lust-spawned insanity prompts the narrator, once Herman is unmasked as a Jew, to hide him in his cellar among his cache of books by banned Jewish authors?
Rozier’s novella is a bittersweet remembrance of the few, fleeting weeks in the narrator’s life when extreme circumstance let his most secret wishes come true. But here’s the crux of the problem: Isn’t “Nazi occupation as symbolic opportunity” already done to death? Sure, the era’s a sore spot to Europeans in ways that Americans can’t fathom. But toward the novella’s conclusion, when the gravid metaphors start to crash against each other like monolith dominos—the sister and the SS officer in the bedroom above and the narrator and Herman in the cellar below, the closeness of German and Yiddish as compared in parallel translations, the idea of Herman as another volume in the narrator’s library of Jewish contraband—the going gets too earnest for even the most dexterous writer. Rozier, while no Thomas Mann, is not an amateur. Even translated from the French, his prose is judiciously florid, able to convey in a novella what someone more chatty might blather into a novel. Still, like a space shuttle that scorches its heat tiles on re-entry, the damage sustained isn’t enough to prevent The Mercy Room from touching down smoothly at the end.