When people start getting into hypothetical debates, it’s often fun to throw out “Kobiyashi Maru” (no win scenario) style questions. One example might be: “If you could go back in time and stand before Hitler as an infant (knowing all he would do), Would you kill him?” In Once Upon a Time in France, we read a story very much in this vein. If on the brink, how far would you go? [Warning: Article contains spoilers.]
Cover To Cover
There is little to discuss about the cover as it simply shows the title with only a hint of what’s to come inside. So let’s talk about the artwork within. The artwork for this graphic novel, drawn by Sylvain Vallee, suites the subject matter. It’s not particularly flashy, but it doesn’t lack in any way, either.
The context of this novel is not for everyone, but I will come back to that momentarily. There is one warning I will throw out there, however. This novel, while not particularly graphic throughout, does not hesitate to show male and female private parts, or violence, when the situation calls for it. Not, it’s never overly graphic, but it can be at times.
Stylistically, the dialogue might be difficult to follow at times. Speech bubbles are often merged in this title, so be mindful when reading them. The character speaking may shift because the bottom of the bubble now points somewhere else.
Who Is Once Upon a Time in France For?
Like I stated earlier, this book will not interest everybody. The main audience for this graphic novel will consist of those who appreciate stories of World War II, in this case from a Jewish perspective, and those that love books that push a personal moral question.
There are no flashy fights or battles of any kind. There are neither political plot twists nor strategic maneuvering that challenge the mind. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that and they would seem out of place. This book is simply the mostly true story of one Jew and his life going through WWII occupied France.
The Core Story
Once Upon A Time in France is written by Fabien Nury, a French Comic writer. It comes to English-speaking audiences thanks to skilled translator Ivanka Hannenberger. Once Upon a Time in France takes place at the time of the Pogroms against Jews in the Russian Empire. Fury tells the true story of a Jewish man named Joseph Joanovici and the violent persecution his family suffered during that time. This tale follows the traditional trope of Hollywood movies when they say ‘based on a true story’. Most of this story is true, but Nury takes liberties in places to fill gaps and tell an entertaining story. While broken into several parts, this story runs about approx. 360 pages, so settle in for a good read with this title.
The story actually starts out a bit confusing. It begins It opens with Joseph and Eva under a porch watching a rather gruesome scene unfold. It then jumps to their wedding some time later as adults, but then the story jumps to an old Joseph, lying in bed terrified of a man watching through a window in a cafe across the road.
The scene then jumps backwards to Paris, 1947, to show Joseph being chased by authorities as if he were some sort of mob boss. Towards the end we are introduced to modern Eva, and she is not happy with how their lives have been running. Obviously, Joseph hides a great deal from her because the scene ends by telling his female driver that he doesn’t want Eva to have to lie when interrogated. So what is going on?
The True Heart of Once Upon a Time in France
If you are confused so far, just hang in there because now the truth begins to emerge. The next scene, circa 1925, picks up shortly after the marriage of Eva to Joseph. He is introduced to Eva’s uncle, where we get to know who Joseph really is.
Joseph may not be the brightest candle in the room, but he knows what he knows and he knows it VERY well. Joseph is an expert metallurgist. Just by biting on a piece of metal he knows what metal it is, its quality and what can be done with it. Where Eva’s uncle has piles of scrap laying around going to waste, Joseph begins to sort and itemize all the metals.
Joseph cannot read or write, but he has his own codes and symbols for tracking what he counts. Instead of numbers, a sole equals 10, a shoe equals 100 and a boot equates to 1,000. He may not know traditional ways, but he knows how to get things done.
Profit With Price but No End
Joseph’s ability to sort, wheel and deal metal sets him up for life. He knows how to salvage the best from junk yards, turn around and sell it. There is just one problem. The main part of this story takes place in the late 30s and early 40s in France, which means Joseph has to deal with WWII. The war was bad enough but as I said, Joseph is Jewish. He immediately hides this as best he can as German influence creeps into France.
When Germany finally takes over France, Joseph hides his family and then turns his gift into something the Gestapo desperately needs – a metal dealer to feed their war machine. Joseph does what he has to to survive. One either gives the SS something they can’t live without, or one goes to Auschwitz to die. Joseph makes himself invaluable, but in the process gets himself in deep with the Germans.
Joseph would have been just fine except as the war progresses, so do the allies at the cost of the Germans. Joseph then has to ask what to do when your biggest enemy, now your biggest ally, becomes the biggest loser?
Honor and Death? Or Dishonor and Life?
Once Upon a Time in France is the Tale of Joseph Joanovici. He was a Jewish man that did what he had to do to survive, no matter the cost. To protect both himself and his family (including a brother he kept safe), Joseph sold is soul to do so. To him any means justified the end. And he won…or did he? He kept his family safe but in post-war France, dues had to be paid.
This story is truly a fascinating tale of what one Jewish man did to survive WWII France. Above all it truly begs the “Kobiashi Maru” question: How far would you go? Where do you draw the line between honor and life? Would you sell your soul to live, or would you choose to die and sell out all you ever stood for?
A Wonderful Story of Dedication
Once Upon a Time in France is 360-pages makes this a dedicated read. Though the nature of the story is a bit dry, but Fabien Nury does a wonderful job of retelling a story that intrigues on multiple levels. Add in the fact this is pretty much a true story out of WWII France, and it becomes even more appealing.
If you love that era, or even stories with such moral quandaries, I highly recommend this graphic novel. The whole story is of a simple man, spending his whole life, trying to make his way through a world that is desperate to kill both him and those he loves.
Publisher Dead Reckoning releases Once Upon a Time in France Sept 18, 2019.