Haunt­ing Paris: A Novel

By – September 23, 2019

Haunt­ing Paris illus­trates how easy it is to be in denial about the past. Mam­ta Chaudhry’s char­ac­ters paint a roman­tic pic­ture of the streets of Paris, but we are always brought back to the haunt­ing mem­o­ry of those same streets dur­ing World War II — cov­ered in the foot­steps of the Gestapo as they took Jew­ish peo­ple from their homes.

Chaudhry tells her Holo­caust tale through mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, but main­ly focus­es on the pro­tag­o­nist Sylvie and the ghost of her dead lover, Julien. It’s the sum­mer of 1989, and Sylvie spends much of her time mourn­ing the loss of her late true love — unable to find com­fort as she usu­al­ly can by play­ing the piano. When we’re not with Sylvie, we’re with Julien’s ghost, who’s heart­bro­ken see­ing his love cope with the loss. But Sylvie isn’t the only per­son who has lost someone.

Although Julien is dis­crete about his past, we know he is Jew­ish and that his sis­ter, Clara, and her daugh­ter died in the Holo­caust. He was always con­vinced that Clara’s sec­ond daugh­ter made it out, and despite secret­ly search­ing for her until the day he died, he was nev­er able to find her. Rather than ide­al­iz­ing Paris and his old life as his ghost wan­ders, Julien reflects on the dark mem­o­ries that he claims every­one sim­ply wants to for­get. We can hear the pain he car­ried to the after­life as he aim­less­ly roams the streets:

Those glow­ing lights are like the unwink­ing gaze of his­to­ry, before which I low­er my eyes, ashamed that so many of my coun­try­men thought a moral reck­on­ing with our own cul­pa­bil­i­ty would tear us apart and chose amne­sia instead.”

Julien’s secrets begin to encom­pass Sylvie’s life. She encoun­ters an enve­lope that belonged to Julien, with the let­ter M” writ­ten on it, con­tain­ing a pho­to­graph and a let­ter. Hes­i­tant to pur­sue it at first, Sylvie even­tu­al­ly devel­ops a vig­or­ous curios­i­ty to find out who M” is and what the con­tents mean; this becomes the first piece of a puz­zle that Sylvie puts togeth­er through­out the book. As she unearths Julien’s past and con­tin­ues the search for his niece, we find that his death didn’t bury his sto­ry along with him — it brought it back to life.

Each chap­ter alter­nates between the per­spec­tives of the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, cap­tur­ing the essence of the sto­ry. Sylvie sees Paris as her roman­tic and time­less­ly beau­ti­ful city; the Amer­i­can tourists she befriends view it as a city that belongs to a coun­try unable to tru­ly be under­stood by out­siders; Julien sees streets that once knew his fam­i­ly, and then the Gestapo — haunt­ing­ly repeat­ing Ouvrez, police” as they knocked on every French door.

Chaudhry deft­ly por­trays how a place can hold so much beau­ty and tragedy all at the same time. We are forced to remem­ber the pow­er of mem­o­ry and how eas­i­ly we allow cer­tain truths to stay buried.

Michelle Zau­rov is Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s pro­gram asso­ciate. She grad­u­at­ed from Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in New York, where she stud­ied Eng­lish and lit­er­a­ture. She has worked as a jour­nal­ist writ­ing for the Home Reporter, a local Brook­lyn pub­li­ca­tion. She enjoys read­ing real­is­tic fic­tion and fan­ta­sy nov­els, espe­cial­ly with a strong female lead.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Mam­ta Chaudhry-Fryer

  1. The haunt­ing” of Haunt­ing Paris, of course, refers to the ghost of Julien, who par­tial­ly nar­rates the nov­el, but spec­tral pres­ences of the past hov­er over much of the novel’s action. Who/​what else is haunt­ing the char­ac­ters in the nov­el? Who else is haunted?

  2. The present-day” por­tions of the nov­el are set in 1989, two hun­dred years after the French Rev­o­lu­tion and fifty years after the Sec­ond World War. How is Paris’ vibrant and some­times vio­lent his­to­ry present for the char­ac­ters in 1989? How do they con­front his­to­ry as they move around the city?

  3. What struck you about the novel’s depic­tion of grief? What rang true to your own expe­ri­ences of grief in your life?

  4. How did you under­stand the role of music in the nov­el? How has music been a tool for human con­nec­tion in your own life?

  5. Much of the nov­el takes place on the Ile Saint-Louis in the Seine, where many famous writ­ers and artists once lived. Why do you think the author chose to put Sylvie and Julien’s apart­ment on this island?

  6. Why do you think Sylvie choos­es to search for the truth about Julien’s sis­ter? How do you see Sylvie change as she delves fur­ther into her quest for knowledge?

  7. In Haunt­ing Paris, the lines between life and death can be hazy. For exam­ple, do you think Sylvie is tru­ly liv­ing” at the begin­ning of the nov­el? Is Julien real­ly dead? How do these con­cepts shift over the course of the book?

  8. The round-up of Jews in Paris is one of the most shock­ing scenes in the nov­el. Did you dis­cov­er oth­er peri­ods of anti­semitism in this sto­ry? Do you think that the promise to Nev­er For­get” is being kept?

  9. Julien admires Sylvie’s courage, while she sees her­self as timid and cow­er­ing. What act of courage on her part first attract­ed Julien’s atten­tion? Are there oth­er peo­ple in the book who speak up when it would have been eas­i­er to remain silent? Have you ever been in a sit­u­a­tion where you were the lone voice in the room to speak up? How did that feel?

  10. Since Julien is a psy­chi­a­trist and a stu­dent of Freud — whose book, The Inter­pre­ta­tion of Dreams, was ground­break­ing in the field — he obvi­ous­ly hears a lot of patients talk­ing about their dreams, includ­ing those that recur. What dreams in the book struck you as par­tic­u­lar­ly mean­ing­ful in terms of the light they shed both on the char­ac­ters and on the story?