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'The Saboteur' combines heroic World War II history with thriller dramatics

Robert de La Rochefoucauld and his Resistance comrades were guided by an unspoken code of bravery.

The Saboteur By Paul Kix HarperCollins Publishers 448 pp.
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  • Steve Donoghue

Four hundred years ago, François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld, who would go on to secure his literary immortality as the author of nonsensical aphorisms that have stood generations of epigraph-hungry writers in good stead, was a frondeur, an inveterate rebel against the whimsical tyranny of the king. He was gallant, eloquent, and principled, and he wasn't willing to compromise.

He was the exact opposite of those about whom Benjamin Franklin – friend to one of the duc's descendants – famously said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” 

The spirit of the old frondeur infuses Paul Kix's nonfiction debut, The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France's Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando, and this makes sense: At the heart of the book is Robert de La Rochefoucauld, one of the duke's 20th-century descendants, who was raised to his teenage years in the palatial chateaux and splendor of his family's various properties. 

In the fall of 1940, Robert de La Rochefoucauld was 17, and he and his siblings and their imperious mother Consuelo were sharing their chateau Villeneuve with boorish Nazi soldiers, part of the German forces then occupying half of France. Rochefoucauld's outraged patriotism had been inflamed for weeks by the Free French broadcasts being made in London by Charles de Gaulle, who was calling insistently for each loyal Frenchmen to take up arms and become a résistant in the informal war against the Nazis.

Considering his long family history, Rochefoucauld felt this call as a personal goad. “Greatness was expected of him,” Kix writes, “and the expectation shadowed his days.”

He wouldn't find the answer at Villeneuve. At age 19, he made his way to England and eventually came into contact with the fledgling Special Operations Executive (SOE), a new branch of the British secret service specializing in clandestine warfare by unconventional means. “The world had seen nothing like SOE,” Kix writes (a trifle hyberbolically; he himself mentions several rough predecessors), describing the way its agents were trained to infiltrate Nazi-occupied territories and do however much throat-slitting, line-cutting, and bomb-planting was necessary to disrupt the smooth working of the conquerors.

Kix mentions that the guerrilla tactics of the SOE appealed to Churchill because of his own adventurous past as a young man; for Churchill, the SOE's success was proof that “any army, even one as great as Germany's, could be defeated in part by small bands of rebels, trained liked British commandos, striking hard against the Nazi underbelly, and blending back into the population. Everywhere and nowhere.”

Rochefoucauld trained with this rough-hewn group informally dubbed “the ministry of ungentlemanly warfare,” and he was an apt pupil. When Rochefoucauld “graduated,” he returned to France and immediately began sowing the kind of chaos that was SOE's speciality.

Kix follows the story through every stage of his hero's acquisitions of the unusual skills with which he would prosecute his war against the Nazis. Kix uses both the memoir Rochefoucauld wrote – "La Liberté, C'est Mon Plaisir: 1940-1946," and it's as bombastic and enjoyable as its title suggests – and the private account he left for his family, which means that he has a wealth of colorful anecdotes at his disposal.

Kix takes the reader from adventure to adventure, and all of it is narrated with a curiously effective combination of historical perspective and fictional thriller dramatics. “The open highway, with the pedal to the floor, and seconds becoming minutes and still no one trailing him,” Kix writes at one point while narrating one such adventure. “He might actually make it! He had never felt so alive!”

The result of this combination is almost a textbook demonstration of how to flesh out a small detail from the historical record – indeed, it's a reminder that the small details often contain the most remarkable stories. Robert de La Rochefoucauld survived his daring adventures against the Nazis and went on to live a long and relatively contented life. Kix's account begins and ends with glimpses of that much older man, recalling the unspoken code of bravery that guided him and his comrades during the Resistance. The reminder that "The Saboteur" is at heart a hero's tale is very refreshing. 

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