Holding it in my hand, this book has a slightly larger than average format with a glossy cover and bright white pages, feeling more like a textbook than a wartime novel. Yet the story hidden behind this facade is anything but textbook; The Cyclist is enthralling.
Fred Nath tells the story of Auguste Ran, Assistant Chief of Police in Nazi-occupied Aquitaine, 1943. Auguste begins to realise that he is complicit in Nazi atrocities, and struggling with his conscience, he searches for forgiveness. In his journey, Auguste battles with his Catholic religion: he doesn’t “think of himself as a deeply religious man”, he questions the existence of Hell and he admits to being a “lax Catholic” as well as “superstitious”; yet at times he is so overcome with religious feeling that it’s hard to believe that he doubts his faith: “He saw his God. He envisioned his Lord on the cross and a warm feeling came.” This inconsistency only illustrates Auguste’s loss of self, and his consequent desire to redeem himself in the eyes of his God:
He did know his soul dangled by an unraveling thread, suspended over a bitter sea of eternal punishment.
Auguste’s struggle is also rooted firmly in the “Vichy government’s propaganda” motto, Travail, Famille, Patrie, which means Work, Family, Fatherland. He often questions his role as a father, as a husband, as a friend to his Jewish “brother” Pierre, and in his position of authority, as he struggles with the idea of of good versus evil, law versus justice, and revenge versus redemption.
Dordogne Valley, France
The story is brilliantly executed. Fast-paced with short snappy sentences and surprising plot twists, The Cyclist is a real page turner, so much so that I found myself skimming paragraphs just to discover the outcome of certain quandaries. Fred Nath manages to strike a fine balance: progressing with the plot while providing just enough quasi-historical insight to fuel the story (too much historical context can often overshadow the narrative). But Nath’s biggest success is the sustained atmospheric tension that he creates somewhat effortlessly: doors “click” closed, feet “slap”, and heels “clack” on the “cobbles” outside the Prefecture. Admittedly, I found the imagery to be slightly repetitive (all doors seem to “click” close), however this repetition does contribute to the tension that is well sustained throughout the text.
At times, I found the the prose slightly akward (“He knew he must have been dreaming but had no recall of it”), and the erroneous typo’s throughout the text did distract me (“acc-ompanying”, “in-tolerance” “Dubois”/”Dubos”). But none of this detracts from what is essentially a gripping and haunting story about a conflicted and tortured soul, and I highly recommend it.
Go on, read the prologue and chapters one and two at the Fingerpress website!