Callil is not a professional historian (she is the founder of Britain's Virago Press), and her motivation for pursuing Darquier's story was anything but academic. In the first pages, she explains that soon after she came from Australia to Britain in the early 1960s, she attempted to commit suicide. When she recovered, her doctor prescribed therapy, and for seven years Callil went three times a week to see a half-Australian psychiatrist. She was Anne Darquier, the abandoned daughter of Louis and Myrtle who had been raised in Oxfordshire by her redoubtable nanny, Elsie Lightfoot. Anne died in 1970 at the age of 40, poisoned by alcohol and pills. ("It was not suicide," Callil writes, "though there are slow ways of trying to kill yourself not given that label.") Callil, who was deeply affected by Anne's death, learned of the elder Darquier's identity only later, when she spotted him in Marcel Ophüls's documentary The Sorrow and the Pity.
Callil's book, then, is the result of what can only be called an obsessive quest to understand: to understand the unhappy Anne Darquier by understanding the bizarre and terrible legacy that she had the impossible task of living with. While principally a biography of Darquier himself, it is also the story of the entire family, with long, fascinating pages on Myrtle and her Australian family, and also on the story of how a hard-edged ambition took Anne Darquier from genteel poverty with Lightfoot to university at Oxford, and then into medicine. Anne, who during the war had idealized the father she had never met (and whom she had very little idea of), finally met him after he arrived in Spain, and the experience left her utterly appalled and distraught. Just before her death she remarked to Callil that "there are some things and some people you can never forgive." Incidentally, Darquier inherited £16,552 from his daughter and used it to purchase his apartment in Madrid from the Spanish government. As one of Myrtle's pallbearers remarked (she had died soon before Anne): "No one, it seems, survives Darquier."
Callil writes with passion (how could she not, under these circumstances?), and it gives her book a force and drive that keeps the reader going through its 400-some pages of narrative. Occasionally she overwrites: "The threnody of [Myrtle's] Tasmanian family and the money she would one day inherit trills through all her letters like the sound of a piccolo." More often, however, she holds back, giving her prose touches of dry, penetrating wit. For instance: The existence of the unoccupied zone gave France "a sedative pretence of sovereignty." Or, on Darquier's appointment to head the commission: "An even worse punishment for the Germans responsible for his appointment was their discovery that Darquier was a pestiferous bore." Or, on Louis and Myrtle: "Their mutual inventions were one of the strongest cords that held them together." Callil also has an unfortunate line, in her postscript, about what "the Jews of Israel [are] passing on to the Palestinian people." It has caused a predictable controversy, and is wrongheaded. Since when does a great crime confer any special moral burden on the victims?
But what of the question of Louis Darquier's own moral responsibility? Here, Callil poses more genuinely troubling, and difficult questions, and the problem of identification rears its head. On the one hand, by telling the story in the way she has, Callil inevitably relates Darquier's monstrosity in his private life to the monstrosity of his public actions. Callil knows, of course, that most monsters injure no one other than their nearest and dearest, while many great criminals lead impeccable private lives. But she draws a connection nonetheless by characterizing Darquier, in the end, as a sort of wanton incompetent whom chance and tragedy swept up into a position where he could do harm on a bizarrely vast scale:
Yoked in mutual self-deception with Myrtle, the Baron and Baroness, twin children--wicked children--played games, murderous games, pulling wings off butterflies, dispensing cruelty like liquorice water. Left to himself, Louis Darquier would have destroyed only his own children and any adult...foolish enough to dabble in his fantasy world.... Above and around Darquier were the real criminals, the Pétains and Weygands, the Bousquets and Vallats, the cardinals and clergy, the judges and lawyers, the industrialists and businessmen...who put his babbling mouth to work for their own ends.... Looking at him, hearing him speak...they stared their own inhumanity in the face.... He was ridiculous, he was their fall guy, but he was also the dark essence of l'Etat français.
There is something about this judgment that is just a little too easy, and this may perhaps have to do with the many years Callil spent inside Louis Darquier's head. It is not that she sympathizes with him in any way. Darquier was a man almost impossible not to loathe, and Callil loathes him fiercely. But she may have gotten to know him too well to take him as seriously as he deserves. Darquier was indeed a wicked child of sorts--indeed, a certifiable maniac. But World War II was a time when the maniacs emerged from the asylum and nearly destroyed civilization. What was Hitler, after all, if not a more efficient, a more energetic, a more ambitious Darquier? The more sober men of Vichy--the Pétains and Lavals and Bousquets--were indeed criminals. They exploited their country's defeat for their own ideological and personal ends. But left to themselves they would never have devised the idea of sending tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children to their death for the sin of being born Jewish. That insanity came from the Darquiers. It is relatively easy to imagine being a classic collabo like Bousquet, who doubtless defended his actions to himself better than Darquier could ever be bothered to. Putting oneself in Darquier's shoes is much harder, precisely because of the extent of his mania. Even Callil, understandably, flinches from the task in revulsion. Nonetheless, thanks to her, we now have a portrait of his evil that remains scorched in the brain long after the book has been closed.