Veronica's Reviews > Love and War in the Pyrenees: A Story of Courage, Fear and Hope, 1939 - 1944

Love and War in the Pyrenees by Rosemary Bailey
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Aug 22, 2009

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Read in August, 2009

Rosemary Bailey previously wrote one of those "I bought a charming ruin in France and renovated it with the help of my eccentric and oh-so-French neighbours" books, which I haven't read (by the time Peter Mayle had finished with that genre there were already at least two too many). This one is the result of someone giving her a bundle of letters between the husband and wife who owned the house (a former monastery) during WWII, but it's about much more than that -- it's basically a potted history of the Pyrénées Orientales during the war, based on letters, research, and interviews.

Bailey is passionate about where she lives and clearly learned a lot while writing the book, but unfortunately failed to be selective enough -- she basically put everything in, a mixture of anecdote, straightforward historical narrative, and speculation. She does her best to organise it into themed chapters, but this tends to mean that the hundreds of characters become a blur because you meet someone in one chapter and then lose them until a few chapters later, by which time you've forgotten who they are.

But I would still highly recommend reading it, because it covers history you are unlikely to find elsewhere unless you are a specialist. It's the 70th anniversary of the Retirada this year, when half a million Spanish refugees poured over the Pyrenees into France, most of them via the Albères at the eastern end of the Pyrenees. The story of how the French state treated them both then and during the war is an utter disgrace, and has been brushed under the carpet for decades. Herded into concentration camps (yes, they were called that, whatever anyone says now) with other "undesirables" (communists and Jews for example, including those who had actually fled to France from Germany, Austria and elsewhere), they starved, died of TB and other diseases because of the unhygienic conditions, carried out forced labour, or, if Jewish, were handily rounded up by the Vichy government and shipped off to Germany -- no prizes for guessing what happened to them there. In 1995, Jacques Chirac was the first President to admit that this behaviour was "unworthy of France, home of the rights of man". I already knew this because of where I live (some of my neighbours arrived here from Spain in 1939) but most French people don't.

This book was also a good complement to Lucy Wadham's The Secret Life of France, prompting further reflection on French culture. Wadham (who also has a chapter on the war) says that while the British rather enjoy triumphing over privation, employing their ingenuity to make the best of very little, and hence had a "good war", the French are more concerned with Beauty and Pleasure, so war, defeat, and occupation don't suit them at all. An over-simplification, but there is evidence for this view in this book.
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