Oradour is the village that appears at the beginning of the first episode of The World at War documentary series. It also appears at the end of the last episode, bookending the series with a symbol that shows the war was not really about glory or sacrifice or changing the world one way or the other, those are just the more acceptable colours draped over senseless carnage.
In June 1944, only a few days after the Allies landed in Normandy, the SS blocked all the ways in and out of the picturesque rural village of Oradour and divided its 650 inhabitants into several groups. Five groups of men were taken to various barns. The women and children were herded into the church. The SS then proceeded to massacre almost everyone, notionally because Oradour was a Resistance hideout. They left the village a ghost town, and one that survives largely untouched to this day – after the war Charles de Gaulle insisted it be left as testament to what happened.
Helen Watts’ Carnegie-nominated novel tells the story of that day in Oradour from the perspective of Alfred, a little boy who managed to survive. He drifts through this nightmare, like the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. He has no story arc because this is not a book where characters learn or develop and everything gets tied up neatly at the end. For most of its length, as soon as the Germans arrive, this novel is a documentary, walking through events and imagining how the victims felt.
Perhaps necessarily this is a fictionalised account. Few people from the town survived. Most of those who did had fled before the killing began. The story has been put together from those few survivors, and the few men who were brought to account after the war, who together could confirm that the SS were ordered to only shoot their victims in the legs so that they would still be alive when set on fire, amongst other horrors inflicted that afternoon.
Most of the names have been changed, amalgamating several survivors into Alfred and several perpetrators into one cruel SS commander, Gustav Dietrich. Seven-year-old Alfred could be a curious scamp from just about any children’s book, but Dietrich suffers from this fictionalisation, with some cod psychology about father issues cribbed on to make him seem a bit more understandable.
This book is aimed at 11 and 12 year olds, who have probably seen enough movies to be inured to violence. But this novel reins things back. Gunfire and explosions bring terror, not excitement. Watts starts by focusing on making her version of Oradour seem very real, so that when she starts reporting, in an often cold, observational manner, what happened there, it all seems quite scarily real too.