The writing of PARIS NIGHT
Why and how did you write this book?
Roderick d'Entrac : Paris Night began life fifteen years ago on a chairlift in the French Alps in response to a request from my skiing companions of forty years.
Each time we spent a week together in the mountains they plied me with questions about France. They were fascinated, intrigued and even shocked by the answers.
Some of the stories about abuse of power and scandals, far more complicated than the plots in a Ludlum novel, with more characters than a Russian classic, and sex as a vital ingredient, stretched their credibility.
“For decades, France has rejected reforms. The economy is heading for the rocks and a strong smell of decadence is polluting the country's institutions. There will be a great awakening, but the longer the sleepwalking lasts, the greater the culture shock,” I said.
They urged me to write a book. “You should write about the shadows on the back of the postcard, the secrets of the system,” they suggested.
I wrote the main outline over about two years. The writing and research took about 10 years altogether. I spent another two years on editing.
How did you choose the themes, the story lines? What gave you the ideas which unfortunately have proved so accurate ?
Roderick d'Entrac: There was an abundance of material, but I hope of course that an 'Armageddon' attack along the lines I have imagined is not also acted out in fact. However, it is now known that failings and rivalries between the security services, along the lines I describe, were a factor in allowing the terrorists who killed the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo to prepare and slip through the net. Some of the main themes are the flaws behind the success and 'savoir vivre' of the French, the warts behind the beauty. Corruption, conspiracies, sex and betrayal in high places.
You began writing about a huge attack on the West, in Paris, even before the attacks against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and long before the two attacks in Paris which caused the French government to declare war on islamic terrorist movements. How did you see the danger which 15 years ago was considered a figment of extremists who saw a clash of civilisations?
Roderick d'Entrac: I have worked closely for years with journalists from all over the world. Some of them are moslems who speak Arabic. Many years ago they were alarmed, anxious, and warned in private, that for decades – since the revolution which deposed the Shah of Iran and established the Islamic Republic -- aggressive groups in the Middle East and North Africa, armed with cassettes and radio broadcasts, had declared openly that they intended to create a caliphate or caliphates which, by manipulating moslem minorities in the West, would expand and eventually control the whole world. One of their main targets is Saudi Arabia. They also want to drive all Europeans and Christians from North Africa and the Middle East, and then win power in Spain, Italy and particularly in France. Since the cultural revolution in Iran, a great conflict between the two main branches of Islam, armed with modern weapons, is possible. These journalists used to say that they had the cultural background to take these warnings seriously, particularly in view of the murder in the 1990s of between 100,000 and 200,000 Algerians, mainly by throat-cutting. The vision looked years, even centuries ahead, because in Middle Eastern cultures time has a different meaning: what happened a thousand years ago may seem immediate and a cause for revenge. My colleagues were worried that people in the West were so ignorant, reacting with ridicule and disbelief, saying that such talk was extreme, racist, islamophobic. This, even though in the 1930s, a man laid out his plan, and in a since-banned book which was distributed as a fascist political-religious manifesto or 'Bible', and was ignored and ridiculed, until it was too late.”
“Write a thriller,” my friends said, " Everyone sees the prestigious, romantic facade of France. But it’s clear that there’s another, darker facet. Use fiction to get away from specific stories and facts. Create characters who have been crushed by abuse of power. Put them in a moral dilemma between fear and resignation.”
The more questions they asked, the more surprised they became at how the country is governed, how administration works at national and local level, by the monarchical nature of the presidential system and of the circles of courtiers in a gilded world. They were intrigued to discover a deep form of class system rooted in the élite schools, and struggled to comprehend labyrinthine, sometimes erotic, stories of corruption and in-fighting. They were intrigued by rivalries in and between the complex layers of security services and by how the separation of powers between government, security forces, the judiciary and even the media was abused by political pressures,
The working title for Paris Night was “Decadence”.
Your novel seems highly topical today! One theme seems to have foreseen precisely the method used by the killers in Paris: the use of so-called sleeping cells of local people who plan carefully for an opportunity to attack. What gave you this idea?
Roderick d'Entrac : Today, everything in this novel will appear readily credible to readers. Since the mass murders by Islamic terrorists in Paris in November 2015, and in January of that year, to silence the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, and in the light of beheadings, torture and rape by Islamic movements in many countries, several readers have told me that what seemed difficult to accept in Paris Night now appears astonishingly well informed and prescient.
Since I began, there has been an unending run of scandals. One of these, which led to revelations of orgies in high places, destroyed the presidential ambitions of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF. Another, over tax evasion by the French budget minister, led President Hollande to warn that corruption and loss of faith in institutions could destroy the French Republic. Then there was the case of 'sexcapades' by Hollande on a motor-bike. He was lightly escorted in the streets of Paris at night. The risks of assassination, or worse – kidnap of a man with nuclear codes – were enormous. A film script along such lines would have stretched credibility in Hollywood. Then his scorned live-in lover left the Elysee Palace for the refuge of a hospital room for psychological respite, and becomes a millionaire with a book about tantrums in the presidential bedroom. All this goes beyond even the exotic and erotic passages in Paris Night. In another, less-reported scandal which could have walked straight out of the pages of the novel, it emerged that a confidant working with Sarkozy when he was president secretly tape-recorded conversations as an insurance policy.
You ask about sleeping cells of assassins. This method is as old as the hills, literally. The Soviet spy ring based on Burgess and McLean, which did huge damage to the West and resulted in the deaths of many western agents, was fundamentally a 'sleeper' operation. It is now known that the Soviet Union had established a network of so-called “spetznaz” sleeper cells in the west ready to assist any Soviet invasion. The West had prepared “stay-behind” resistance operations under the top-secret Gladio network.
From about the 12th to 14th centuries, a sect of Islam, the Hashashanis, spread terror across the Islamic world from their mountain fortress in Iran, by placing loyal fanatics among their distant enemies with the mission of working their way up over many years into the trust and inner circles of targets for assassination. Their favoured method was death by dagger, sometimes tipped with poison. Their reputation was so ferocious that on occasions, they would use the threat of assassination by an anonymous agent somewhere in the entourage of the victim to obtain changes in policy by blackmail: a way of obtaining appeasement used down the ages and today, by the self-styled islamic state, for example. A recent and successful example was the bomb attack on a train in Madrid which killed xxx people and obtained the immediate withdrawal of Spanish forces from Iraq. The Hashashanis were said to prepare their assassins by drugging them and then rewarding them on their awakening with naked women and other signs of paradise. Hence it is though that this sect may be at the origin of the words 'assassin' and 'hashish'.
So Paris Night is set in fact, facts of the past, facts of the future?
Roderick d'Entrac: The novelist creates a version of the future from experiences and interpretations of the past. Apart from references to World War II and the Algerian war of independence, the events described in my novel never occurred and, it is to be hoped, never will. And apart from passing references to General De Gaulle, the characters and their circumstances are the composite inventions of imagination, created to enact the story lines, to people the context of contemporary institutions, and to ensure constant dramatic tension. They exist only on these pages.
The annexation of part of Georgia and Ukraine was not difficult to foretell. People in a position to be in government in countries in eastern Europe, apart from Russian stooges, will tell you that since the collapse of the Soviet Union their priority is to ward off the risk of falling once again under domination and occupation from Moscow which, for them, was an experience of the day before yesterday. The technique is ancient: use or manipulate a group of people in a target country to become aliented from the dominant value system, by language, culture, genes, economic interest, ideology or religion.
A central theme of the book is paralysing rivalry between security services. This in itself is a challenge, for the complexity of the French security forces is almost impenetrable although some amalgamations have occurred since the book was written. A potentially more dangerous conflict of interests can be driven by political rivalries. Put simply, policing in urban areas in France is carried out by police, elsewhere by the Gendarmèrie, a military force of soldiers trained mainly to maintain civil order which is also deployed abroad. There are myriad other commando and riot forces, spy and counter-spy services, internal intelligence and customs flying squads. There are also judicial police, including gendarmes, with special powers and prerogatives.
The Gendarmerie nationale, founded at the time of the French Revolution, has a high reputation for integrity and efficiency. It inspires respect and fear. For dramatic effect, I have placed internecine conflict within the security forces in the Gendarmerie, but in fact between two atypical officers in the grip of political masters. Others of integrity in the force work to bring them down. Meanwhile rival intelligence services compete for information and for success.
Today there is concern that rivalry between security services and inadequate analysis of available information facilitated the ttacks on Charlie Hebdo and in November, 2015.
The novel is entirely fiction, and the decour does change: the brothers who owned the old, mysterious shop selling walking sticks in the arcade have retired and their premises have been modernised; and the family operating the emporium of oriental clothes and furniture opposite have also closed the business. The grotesque head which used to peep from behind curtains at the Musée Grevin has also been retired.
However, one of the main themes remains valid: how political corruption can subvert institutions and paralyse their ability to counter extreme danger -- economic, social, political, environmental, or as in this thriller, terrorist.
I wrote the book to tell a gripping story, to provide insights, and with a strong sense of foreboding since part of the work of the novelist is to imagine, to foresee and to warn.