In today’s edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from E.R. Ramzipoor’s debut novel, The Ventriloquists, out today from Park Row.
In its starred review, Booklist called The Ventriloquists “A compelling historical thriller,” while Publishers Weekly called the book “Sprawling and ambitious, with crisp pacing and fully realized characters.”
2 Years Before
Let me tell you something about my friend Marc Aubrion. Though I have known many writers who were given to stage fright, Aubrion would have found it difficult to define, let alone to experience, that feeling. It did not matter whether the audience laughed at his jokes, or at him: if they were laughing, they belonged to Marc Aubrion. That is not to say that he wasn’t afraid, in the days of Faux Soir. To be alive was to be afraid. Although not every day of the occupation brought us pain—it is easy to forget that now—unpredictability bred our fear. We were trapped inside an arrhythmic heart, holding each other between tremors. Marc Aubrion was afraid, but he was our bouffon, our jester. When the lights went off, he lit a match with a joke.
As you might imagine, Aubrion’s path to the resistance was fraught with crooks and digressions. Soon after Belgium surrendered to the Germans—when good King Leopold took the crumpled wad of our country out of his pocket and handed it over like money for sweets—the Germans issued a summons. Every newspaper editor in the country was to attend a meeting to discuss “the future of their most noble profession.”
Upon their arrival, the editors were escorted to a ballroom and shot.
Paranoid about martyrs, the Nazi High Command ordered the bodies to be cremated behind a courthouse. Aubrion, who had supported his playwriting habit with newspaper articles and theater critiques, was unemployed overnight.
Then the libraries closed, the fruit stands went away, and the caramel wind no longer blew the carnivals in from the east. The Germans boarded up the playhouses and pubs that had hosted Aubrion’s performances; they took the galleries, the museums, the bookshops. Only the smallest, poorest venues escaped their notice.
On the outskirts of the city, one such venue—a third-rate art gallery—was hosting an evening show. This gallery was quite run-down, with an ancient curator who often forgot to charge entry fees. The art was not good, but the ticket stubs and f lat champagne were evidence that people were still making things, people were still alive. Aubrion went often.
Even so, he almost decided not to attend this particular show. Some artist or another had made his debut with a new exhibit: Sketches of a Rough Life, simple drawings of farmers with their livestock and plows. That sort of thing infuriated Aubrion. The Nazis permitted artists to work their trade as long as their pens were dull, their canvases simple and muted. Aubrion despised those pallid stories and drawings so popular during the war. But as I’ve heard it told, he’d just had an article rejected by the new resistance paper La Libre Belgique, and he did not want to be alone with himself. So Aubrion walked to the third-rate gallery.
Although I cannot remember who told me this story, I remember what they said: Aubrion was standing before a painting as large as his body, an oil-on-canvas temple in a land of geysers and mist. And Aubrion was looking at the painting when the air raid siren began to wail.
How do you imagine an air raid? They are nothing like that. I experienced so many of them I could sleep through the sirens by the war’s end. I witnessed air raids alone, in the company of friends, with strangers. And it was always the same. You see, an encounter with an air raid is like an encounter with God: they are as mysterious, as unknowable. We accepted these encounters with the same grim finality with which people accept the afterlife. We never tried to run, and we never hid; there were no screams. When the siren wailed, I would look up at the ceiling or sky, as would everyone else, and I would wait. So it was with Aubrion.
But then it was not the same. If the bomb found him, Aubrion realized, it would find all of them, every piece in the gallery. It would find this painting of the temple, these drawings of the farmers, those sketches, those prints. The bomb would find every mistake the artists tried to cloak in thicker, bolder oils; it would find every triumphant stroke of yellow and green. With each siren’s call, Aubrion knew what the Germans were doing—or rather, what they were undoing.
I’d often catch Aubrion staring at the piles of brick and concrete that had once been buildings. “The Library of Alexandria dies here every day,” he’d say. But he did not die that day, nor did the painting of the temple, or the sketches of the farmers, or the artists, or the curator. I do not know how Aubrion contacted the Front de l’Indépendance to pledge his service; there were a variety of channels you could use. I only know what the records say: that Marc Aubrion’s service to the FI began a week after that air raid.
The Nazis may have burned the editors’ bodies, but there is more than one kind of martyr. And some things are much harder to burn.
Excerpted from The Ventriloquists @ 2019 by E.R. Ramzipoor, used with permission by Park Row Books/HarperCollins.