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Culture and arts Non-violent resistance

The power of silence, the power of words

“Le silence de la mer” (The Silence of the Sea) has become a landmark text of the French Resistance. It was written during summer 1941, by Jean Bruller, a graphic artist recently drafted in an Alpine battalion. To remain anonymous, the author used the pseudonym Vercors, inspired by the beauty of the surrounding mountains and the massif of the same name, and which he kept as his pen name throughout his life. With his friend and writer Pierre de Lescure, Vercors created the publishing house “Les Éditions de Minuit” clandestinely in 1942 in occupied Paris, initially to distribute this novel and later other works of political protest. The Manifesto that accompanied this first publication was a tribute to freedom of thought and, above all, a response to the literary censorship imposed by Nazi propaganda.

 

Precisely through words, Vercors portrays silence as an act of civil resistance. The story is inspired by his own experience at the start of the occupation, where French houses were requisitioned by the German army. In the story, a man and his 16-year-old niece are forced to house a German officer. Hostile to his arrival, they tacitly agreed to ignore his presence by keeping their usual routine and not responding to requests. The officer then made a habit of warming up evenings in the room where they were staying. On each visit, he talked about his passions for music, for literature and, against all expectations, for France. He is faced daily with the hosts’ silence, who refuse to communicate with the enemy.

 

Silence takes on different meanings throughout the story. Contemptuous and used as a weapon of resistance against the occupier to preserve dignity, it also symbolises the immobility of the hosts and the whole of France. The behaviour of the protagonists is reminiscent of one “advice to the occupied” written by Jean Texcier in 1940 in a clandestine brochure, where he advocates contempt for language: “You don’t know their language, or you’ve forgotten it. If one of them speaks to you in German, make a sign of helplessness and continue your way”. As his hosts start to appreciate him, the officer renounces his convictions and painfully erases himself from their lives by enlisting for the Eastern Front. Precisely when the officer ceases to believe in the French-German friendship, the niece makes a gesture of sympathy by addressing him a “goodbye” before his departure.

 

After the liberation, this novel was widely translated and adapted for cinema and theatre. Today, this patriotic story remains a symbol of the triumph of passive and intellectual resistance.

 

Auriane Jousse

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