There were some moments in E.R. Ramzipoor’s The Ventriloquists when I just had to roll my eyes. Some of the things the characters got up to that are so over the top, so ridiculous that my willingness to suspend disbelief straining. When I got to the Author’s Note at the end—and did a bit of supplemental reading on Wikipedia—those eye rolls turned into the biggest grin I think I’ve ever had at the end of a book. I think my grin would make the actual historical figures behind a forgotten Resistance story glad that they can still make someone laugh.
Ramzipoor frames the remarkable story of Faux Soir with a clever device. Decades later, a researcher contacts someone who was involved with an act of sabotage to get the full history. This researcher explains to the elderly Helene that she has the names of the people who were involved, many of the facts, and knows the fates of the key players, but that she’s missing details that can make the story fully live and breathe again. Helene obliges. She was once the friend and ally of a man named Marc Aubrion, a journalist and attempted playwright, who masterminded the creation of a parody newspaper that contained nothing but absurdist satire (article about the specific kind of satire, zwanze, in French) of the Nazis and their occupation of Belgium. Ramzipoor’s other frame is to create a Nazi effort to co-opt Belgian writers to create a “propaganda bomb,” which will make readers distrust and hate the Allies. Aubrion and his friends and allies use this as cover for their parody newspaper in the novel. (Ramzipoor includes text from the actual Faux Soir in this novel. I’m happy to report that the jokes are still very funny.) In reality, Helene and the Nazi plan didn’t exist. With the exception of a few characters, pretty much everything else in this novel is true or closely based on actual history.
Part way through The Ventriloquists, Marc and one of his friends, Lada (one of the few fictional characters, apparently), have a discussion about what the point of their project is and if it’s all worth it. After all, they might be signing up to die for jokes that might not see the light of day or that might not land with readers. Is a joke worth it? Marc believes it is. He provokes and pushes everyone around him to create Faux Soir. Lada, however, would rather survive the war, thank you very much. She’s been a smuggler and member of the resistance since the beginning of the war. This is an important question. Whenever I read books about World War II or set in World War II, I always ask myself what I would do if I were one of the characters. (I think most other readers do this to.) It had never occurred to me to think about if I would do something as crazy as Faux Soir. This isn’t the only profound question The Ventriloquists tackles. It also spends a lot of time looking at the other side of the coin: how many principles would we be willing to sacrifice in order to live? We might like to think about ourselves as heroes but, statistically, some of us would have been collaborators.
On top of just producing a parody newspaper that could be discovered and shut down by the Nazis at any moment, Marc and the rest of the team have to find ways to fund the paper, get the supplies, get it printed, and get copies out to the newspaper kiosks before the actual copies of the real Le Soir arrive. None of the plans they come up with are small or simple. This was where I rolled my eyes a lot because a few of these plans are so insane that there’s no way they could work. I won’t say anything else because I don’t want to ruin the surprise for readers who are intrigued by this review. This novel and the actual story are the epitome of audacity.
The Ventriloquists is one of the best, bravest, and boldest works of historical fiction I have ever read. The plot is incredible, masterfully written. The characters are outstanding. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who likes World War II fiction, especially for readers who are desperate for something original. You might be able to tell from the hyperbole that I love this book but, seriously, I really loved this book.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.