I’d never read anything by the multi-talented French writer Romain Gary before, and “The Kites” appears to be a sequel to other novels he wrote. “The Kites” is a powerful novel about The French Resistance in occupied Normandy just before and during the Nazi occupation there. Gary himself, originally a Lithuanian Jew, left for France and flew for the English RAF during the war.
“The Kites” is seen from the point of view of Ludo, starting as a teenager, who’s living with his eccentric pacifist uncle in rural Normandy. The uncle, Ambrose Fleury, has survived World War I, become a pacifist, and is raising his nephew , both of whose parents are dead. The magnificently rendered Fleury is a kite maker, and the residents of the village where these two reside consider him to be a bit touched in the head, and that whatever has caused this alleged mental illness (eccentricity?) has been inherited by Ludo. Fleury manipulates this alleged (or partly real) incapacity to great effect in his role in the Resistance; the kites he makes not only symbolize freedom, soaring into the sky, but also are highly politically charged, as he makes images of French politicians past and present who represent French independence and freedom. (When Ambrose Fleury first learns that Jewish children are being rounded up by the occupying Germans and sent to concentration camps, he makes kites that are Jewish six-pointed stars and flies them bravely over the town). Another amazing character owns and runs one of France’s most important restaurants, and this man insists on keeping his restaurant open, which includes serving German officers, Gestapo and the like, as he believes that France’s identity is wrapped up in its famous cuisine, and that every meal he serves perfectly is a slap at the Germans who are dining there (this man is sometimes thought a collaborator by neighbors, but he’s part of The Resistance, too). One of Gary’s most fascinating characters is Lady Esterhazy, born Julie Espinoza, who’s been a madam in a Paris brothel for years, who anticipates what’s coming with Germany, gets papers forged proving that she, a Jewess, is of Aryan stock; her early friendship with Ludo in Paris is the backdrop for the two of them collaborating with The Resistance in Normandy; she entertains German officers at her fancy new digs, and passes on the most important information about troop formations and the like via her role as hostess: she is as brave and fascinating as anyone in this novel (the prostitute with the heart of gold, of course).
Ludo has fallen in love with Lila, the daughter of an old Polish aristocratic family; her family’s French estate in Normandy abuts Ludo’s village. She also has two fascinating brothers, a rather ne’er -do-well gambling father and actress mother: how this family fares during the war is fascinating unto itself, but Ludo’s love for Lila is what sustains him throughout the war and keeps his faith in The Resistance strong. Gary suggests that the power of memory as a motivating force in wartime can be an enormous boost (Ludo’s uncle tries to warn him that, should he meet Lila again–and he will–that she may be very different, which she is and isn’t).
Each of these characters represents something quintessentially French, and each one of them is trying to maintain “La gloire francaise”, just as their hero Charles deGaulle is doing in London in the government in exile. But Gary’s overarching belief from his own experiences in wartime is that inhumanity is a human trait, not particularly or only a German one, during the war’s duration. The novel is structured partly around this firm belief. Some of the German officers billeted in Normandy, and related to Lila, are amongst those who try to murder Hitler in l944, as well. Daily heroism is surely the most difficult to sustain in wartime, when the future is so unknown, and when Germany appears to be winning the war up ‘til l943 or so.
Ambrose Fleury will be sent to Buchenwald and to Auschwitz, because he has tried to save Jewish children, but his return to the small village in Normandy is the apex of the novel’s climax, as he remakes his kites, which again soar into the sky, implying the heart’s infinite desire for freedom and independence. “The Kites” is a truly magnificent novel, beautifully written, full of ethical and moral underpinnings. The endings are happy, because Gary is at heart an optimist, but the lessons learned are many, and his characters some of the most fascinating in literature: this novel is a must read; it’ll gladden your heart.