Tariq is restless. Stuck in boring old Tangier, college offers inadequate stimulation to his 19-year-old mind, and progress with his girlfriend Laila has stalled at watching American TV shows together.
“You gotta get out,” he tells himself, and he doesn’t just mean the bathroom, where he has been admiring himself in the mirror.
The world is a big question mark to him, but one thing he does know is that Paris is the capital of sex and adventure, so north it is!
Approaching Paris from a different direction is Hannah, an American scholar who is researching the experience of Parisian women under the German occupation.
Paths cross, and Tariq becomes Hannah’s unlikely lodger, but zipping around Paris on the Metro – his first experience of such a novel form of transport – he starts to encounter some people who really shouldn’t be there and who open his eyes to the thrum of the past.
Indeed, the Metro is the perfect living symbol of the book’s central question – does knowing one’s history have any bearing at all on the quality of life? After all, the Metro sweeps millions of travellers daily through the historical figures and events after which the stations are exotically named, and they successfully arrive irrespective of whether they know what Bir-Hakeim, Botzaris or Barbès-Rochechouart refer to.
It wouldn’t work in New York or London, where “23rd Street” or “Colliers Wood” just don’t have the same resonance.
After exposure to Hannah’s investigative dedication and learning something of historical atrocities, Tariq decides he’d better at least go and see where some of these things happened, but a monument at Drancy to the Jews deported to Auschwitz provides something for children to play on, not a portal to the past.
Only with a great force of imagination can he summon an idea of what it might have been like, but whatever it is, it’s not “remembering.” (And if there is anyone in the office responsible for atonement for episodes of great national shame, take note: it’s going to take a bit more than a plaque.)
Meanwhile, Hannah, who is all about the past inescapably shaping the present, is having her own convictions challenged. One cannot live on history alone!
One must engage with others, oneself and the present, for better or worse, and not from the perspective of how things might turn out.
You may be surprised to discover, for example, that the women of Paris under the occupation had more pressing concerns than what people in 2018 might think of them. And that 75 years on, our categorisations such as collaborators = bad, Resistance = good do not even begin to tell the stories of the people of the day.
So is Tariq’s quest for sex and adventure resolved to his satisfaction? Possibly with Hannah? All you need to know is that both reach an infinitely more rewarding accommodation of past with present. So what? you may say. But that’s what Tariq thought…