Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Mario Escobar has, on many occasions, managed to profoundly penetrate some of the more difficult and gut-wrenching topics in recent history, a feat he repeats once again with The Librarian of Saint-Malo. The story takes place in France, 1939, and follows Jocelyn, the titular librarian, as she tries to save the books and people of her beloved coastal village as it falls prey to Nazi occupation.
Table of contents
Mario Escobar Launches the Occupation
The vast majority of us are fortunate enough to never be forced to learn the reality of living under enemy occupation. However, less than a hundred years ago it was a horrifying reality much of Europe had to deal with as the Nazis rolled one country over after the next. In The Librarian of Saint-Malo, Mario Escobar takes us to a coastal village in 1939 France whose inhabitants suffer under the rule of the Nazis.
More precisely, we’re taken to the titular village of Saint-Malo, and introduced to Jocelyn and Antoine. Once childhood sweethearts, they’ve only recently gotten married when the latter is drafted by the French government to fight against Germany. With no other choice, he heads off to what history remembers as an ill-fated attempt to stop the Nazi war machine, leaving Jocelyn on her own in the village.
There are definitely limits to what she is capable of, but she does put her position as the local librarian to as good of a use as she possibly can, bringing to Saint-Malo some comfort and courage through the power of literature. At the same time, she chronicles her life under the Nazi regime, smuggling her letters out to an author in Paris, in hopes of her story one day making it out into the wide world.
As the occupying forces make themselves felt, the villagers try their hand at a passive sort of resistance, prompting an active sort of response from the German commander, hell-bent on purging unsuitable literature (for the Nazis, of course) out from the village. Many books are burnt and stolen, and much invaluable knowledge is lost forever.
Risking her own life, Jocelyn does what she can to hide the few books she manages to get her hands on, to protect the people who rely on her, and to get news of her husband, now a prisoner of war in a German camp. Ultimately, as Jocelyn will learn, great acts of heroism seldom come without an equally-grandiose sacrifice, and she too will be forced to make the sorts of impossible choices nobody can bear to be faced with.
Learning Truth Through Fiction in The Librarian of Saint-Malo
Though there are always some outliers for us to laugh about, I think it’s safe to say that most of us know that novels aren’t exactly the best source of factual information. However, I would argue that historical novels are one of, if not the best source of knowledge for those who want to truly immerse themselves and understand from within what certain time periods and events felt like for those stuck within them.
The Librarian of Saint-Malo might not be a documentary in any sense of the word, but that doesn’t mean Mario Escobar slacked off on his research. On the contrary, he obviously dedicated as much time to his research as one would have for a non-fiction book, depicting in absolutely captivating and sometimes surprising detail what life under Nazi occupation was like for some.
Jocelyn might indeed be our main character, but a fair bit of the book is simply dedicated to bringing the city of Saint-Malo to life, to breathing colour into its people, to imparting on us a deep understanding of what their existence was like. It doesn’t matter which character you choose to examine, they each feel like real people with lives extending far beyond what was written for them in the novel.
As a result, while this book might not teach us about the true and exact fates of real people who existed, it does, without a doubt, fully convey the cruel trials people had to face under Nazi occupation. The Librarian of Saint-Malo goes all the way in showing us not only the physical, but also the psychological ramifications of such a conquest, and it becomes a little too easy to imagine the countless people who met similar fates.
The rest of the story benefits immensely from the way in which the setting is brought to life. The town and its people feel real enough for the reader to suffer along with them whenever misfortune rears its head, making us care for the fates of all, and not just Jocelyn and Antoine. Making us care about the faceless folk is, in my opinion, one of the hardest challenges for an author to overcome, and Mario Escobar has succeeded with flying colours.
The Inkwell of Hope
By following the rather informative narration taking us through the lives of the many characters and the battles they’re facing, Mario Escobar shares a great deal of life lessons with us. We all have our own outlooks on life based on our own experiences, but I feel like the ideas he wanted to share with us have universal qualities. That is to say, they largely transcend subjectivity and can appeal to mankind at large, perhaps even in timeless fashion.
Naturally, sorting through all the ideas the author had to share with us in The Librarian of Saint-Malo would require me to write a segment so long one might as well read the novel itself. There is one central theme to it all though, and as you might have imagined, it relates to the power of literature to keep us going through even the darkest of times.
At first, it likely sounds counter-intuitive to anyone with common sense. Practically-speaking, books cannot serve as food, and if one had to put together a survival kit, it would be unlikely for them to put literature in it. However, we humans have evolved to the point where survival for its own sake is seldom enough; we must have meaning in our lives, as well as hope for a better tomorrow.
This is the sort of thing we see books providing in this novel to the people of Saint-Malo: nourishment for the soul. Through literature they find ways of giving meaning to their lives, of interpreting the events surrounding them in different ways, of seeing life under a new angle, one which might give them the hope and toughness they need to wade through the fire towards a better tomorrow. Through literature, we see them gain a reason to live, one beyond living itself.
It comes to the point where the books themselves feel like characters, each with priceless knowledge waiting to be shared with the world. Like Jocelyn, we worry for them as we would for real people, and the pain of seeing one burnt is no less than witnessing the death of a beloved character. Personally, I came to feel like some of those books were more worthy of being saved than real people, and off the top of my head, I can hardly recall a novel which ever made me perceive books in this fashion.
|Feb. 22 2022
The Final Verdict
The Librarian of Saint-Malo by Mario Escobar is a superb work of historical fiction, showing us from every possible angle the fate of the titular coastal town, its people, and its books while under Nazi occupation. A character study centred on the boons of literature, it draws one in with an enchanting prose, and keeps us there with both fascinating and gut-wrenching scenes showing both the horrors of war and the wonder of those who resist it.
If you’re looking for a historical fiction novel centred on Nazi-occupied France and enjoy stories centred on books, then this would, without a doubt, be the perfect fit for you.
Mario Escobar is a Spanish author born in Madrid who holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced Studies, specializing in Modern History. He has sold thousands of books worldwide, many of which have been translated into a slew of languages, with some of his best-known works including Auschwitz Lullaby, Remember Me, Children of the Stars, and The Librarian of Saint-Malo.