This synopsis of Adam Thorpe’s ‘Tyres’ pulls out the most significant events in the unfolding action of the short story. For some additional information about the history of the time, please go to the article entitled History, Notes and Vocabulary for ‘Tyres’
The story is set after the fall of France during the Second World War when the collaborating Vichy government under Petain and Laval use its Milice [French military police in the countryside] to control the local population and participate in the rounding up of people of Jewish extraction, as well as, ensuring that the bulk of the young and able men of France are sent to work in the factories of Germany as part of the Service du Travail Obligatoire [ compulsory work scheme]. Eventually, the German Gestapo enter the so-called unoccupied areas and together with the local Milice attempt to eradicate the Maquis [Resistance Movement and those who challenge the current situation]. This is the context in which the short story ‘Tyres’ is placed.
The story is narrated by the son of the Andre Paulhan et Fils [Andre Paulhan and Son] tyre business (workshop) which is situated on a country road somewhere in the free zone (also known as, the unoccupied territory) in France during World War Two when most of France had been occupied by the Nazi-led German Military might. It is a story about a young man and his father who attempt to continue to run their workshop according to the principles and ethics of good workmanship of the “highest standards” and “the blessed Trinity … the check, the double-check, and the holy-Ghost-check” despite the difficulties caused by the war. It is also a story about love and the loss of the loved one in very unexpected and unfortunate circumstances.
Life is very tough and uncertain at the time. There is division in the community and suspicions run high: Vichy sympathises, Nazi collaborators and the French Resistance fighters contend which makes for a very tense and dangerous situation in the community and for the narrator and his father as members of that community. Shortages of food, fuel and other basics mean that hunger and hardship are the norm. Most people live on chestnuts which are abundant in the area and thus become the staple food during the war years.
Times are hard in the tyre business because of the war, although the narrator, who is responsible for repairs to bicycles, finds that he is busy because people are forced to start using their bicycles again. He is still a young, painfully shy and unassertive teenager at the beginning of the war, especially when it comes to anything not associated with the tyre business. For three years he notices a teenage girl, Cecile Viala, cycle past the workshop in the morning and evening on her way to and from work at a silk-works without being able to say anything more than a polite greeting. He finds her very appealing and would like to befriend her but his inhibitions prevent him. Finally, he begins to find ways of getting to know her – by helping her with her bike, fixing a huge pothole in the road in front of the tyre workshop and by warning her, at great danger to himself, during a Gestapo operation against a Maquisard who was transporting a huge truckful of explosives for use in the Maquis operations. After that he makes definite progress and his family (including his sisters who are only mentioned once more than halfway through the story) begin to regard her as his girlfriend.
At all stages of his life the war intervenes and comes up as an ever-present negative nagging under-belly to everything that the narrator does, thinks or says. An excellent example of this strategy is found in the following extract:
“The whole stretch of road, either way, was empty (just before all those refugees from the north trudged past, with their wheelbarrows, in June): the poppies thinned into one crimson thread of silk on either side, and the plane trees dappled nobody but the birds, alighting while the coast was clear.” (3rd page of story)
His father’s old school friend, Jules, works as a clerk in the Gendarmerie for the Vichy government and is responsible for drawing up lists of people for the various ‘duties’ citizens were forced to perform at the time – the STOs and probably those undesirables being sent off to the labour camps to the east. The narrator believes that his father’s friendship with Jules is the reason why he has not been sent to Germany to work, but only locally in the Vosges forests. Jules, it seems, also helps to keep the business alive by sending some Germans military to them for tyre repairs. He acknowledges that his father sees the war as a personal affront to his business. He does not dig deeply into what his father has had to do to get the trade, but notices that he is a worried man. It seems he is juggling different sides:
“There was no doubt that the game he played was a strain on his nerves. I felt no doubt that men like my non-peasant in peasant’s dress had approached him in recent months, when bolts were turning tighter in our world. He must have felt cornered in some way. He couldn’t have liked it.” (6th page of story).
Matters become very much worse in the area after the Gestapo shoot the young resistance fighters who were transporting a truckload of dynamite to use in resistance against them as the occupying force. Three men are shot and killed and their bodies put on display in the town hall (Mairie) and all the people are made to look at them. When the local Marquisade leader, known only as ‘Petit Ours’, is hanged from a bridge in the village that tensions reach breaking point. The narrator is deeply upset by these events and when an officer in the German military turns up in his car – a Maybach – to have a tyre changed, he decides to act decisively and sabotage the tube so that it will burst and cause an accident that will hopefully kill the occupants of the car.
The irony is that his decision to sabotage the tyre has terrible consequences for him personally. As he says of the events at the time, “I lost. I lost more completely than most men lose.” It so happened that Cecile was riding by on her bicycle at that time and needed to come into the workshop for help because her bicycle chain had come off. The narrator sorted it out for her and made sure she was well on her way before the Germans left the workshop. Things didn’t proceed according to plan: Cecile’s bicycle chain came off again, forcing her to dismount. A moment later the Maybach stopped alongside her and after some conversation the narrator to his horror saw.her bike being loaded into the boot and she got in too. The car took off at great speed.and soon enough a loud bang was heard, the car veered off the road, crashed into a tree and it burst into flame – like ‘the blazing effigy of the Petassou *. Cecile was killed in the accident and the narrator has never forgiven himself. He never marries and to this day has never been able to find a satisfactory explanation of why she got into the car and didn’t just return to him, at the workshop, to have her chain mended.
The narrator is reflecting back on his earliest memories of helping his father in his business and about his fascination with and love for Cecile Viala. The situation in the country, the German occupation and the hunger and hardship experienced by the people are fed into the story but aren’t the main focus for much of the story. It is only once the members of the Marquis are shot and their leader Petit Ours is hanged that it influences the actions that he takes directly.
*A Petassou is an effigy that takes all the bad deeds of the entire year, goes through a trial and is then burnt so that the village and its people are purified for the year. In the villages at the end of winter a carnival is held during which this cleansing scenario is played out.
Go HERE for a brief biography of Adam Thorpe.’
Go HERE for historical background information and notes on ‘Tyres’.