Who is the real author of The Black Insignia? Is it H. R. Sanders, whose name is printed on the cover of every installment of the wildly successful young adult adventure series? Or is it Daniel Roche, the enigmatic world traveler who disappears for months at a time? When Daniel’s great-niece, Hélène, moves to Paris to study archeology, she does not expect to be searching for answers to these questions. As rumors circulate, however, that the twenty-fourth volume of The Black Insignia series will be the last, Hélène and her friend Guillaume, a devoted fan of her great-uncle’s books, set out to discover more about the man whose life eludes her. In so doing, she uncovers an explosive secret dating back to the darkest days of the Occupation.
In recounting the moment when one history began and another ended, The Travels of Daniel Ascher explores the true nature of fiction: is it a refuge, a lie, or a stand-in for mourning?
|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Adriana Hunter studied French and Drama at the University of London. She has translated more than fifty books including Eléctrico W by Hervé Le Tellier (winner of the French-American Foundation’s 2013 Translation Prize in Fiction). She won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize and has been short-listed twice for the Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize. She lives in Norfolk, England.
Read an Excerpt
It wasn’t actually boredom that had made Hélène give up on The Ferrymen of the Amazon. The scant chapter she’d once read, a dozen or so pages, had made her feel short of breath, stifling under some burden. The story began with a catastrophe: a twin-engine plane flying over the Amazon rainforest stalls and crashes into the trees. The pilot and two photographers are killed, Peter Ashley-Mill is the only survivor. Despite deep wounds to his arm and chest, he manages to find the strength, wielding an axe, to hack his way through the climbers and giant trees, not sure whether he will find any humans, nor how they will receive him. Starving, hunched and in pain, he battles on, sometimes resting his hand on the oozing wound close to his heart, under his torn shirt. When he is collapsing with hunger, he digs up roots. Even though the parrots taunt him, You’re going to die, Peter, you’re going to die, he holds on, determined to survive at all costs so he can report the tragic deaths of his companions. But, overcome by exhaustion, pain and fever, he loses consciousness. A huge anaconda eases down from a branch and slowly wraps itself around his body.
She didn’t get any further, but the story haunted her all through her teenage years, she still sometimes dreamed that she was fighting through a hostile jungle, plying her way through the tree trunks and climbers, digging into the ground to find roots, to no avail.
Reading Group Guide
1. Daniel Roche is a writer, a storyteller. Who else tells stories in the novel, and what are the stories they tell? Other than the stories in the Black Insignia series, what stories does Daniel tell?
2. The protagonist of The Black Insignia is asked, “Deep down, Peter, what is it that makes you love adventure?” Do you think Daniel Roche loves adventure? What prompts Hélène to start going on her own “adventures,” and how does her discovery change her life?
3. In what ways is Hélène’s detachment or discomfort within her newfound group of friends (p 15, “Hélène laughed along with them, but she wasn’t sure it was funny”; p 27, “but her voice got lost in the racket and no one heard her”) similar to Daniel’s relationship with his adopted family? Is this alienation present in any other part of the novel?
4. On page 29 the narrator explains, “[W]ars kill parents, no need to picture how it actually happens, and she glossed over the missing episode in the same way that, as a child, she used to skip the page where the mother dies in the book about Babar the elephant.” In what ways is the novel a psychological study of Hélène? Consider her initial indifference toward the Black Insignia books. How does her reaction to or opinion of the books change? What prompts this change? How does Hélène’s relationship with the books parallel her relationship with Daniel?
5. Compare Hélène’s relationship with the Black Insignia books to Guillaume’s and other fans’ relationship with them. Daniel and his books create a community among strangers, as shown in the interaction between Guillaume and the saleswoman on page 76. What kind of effect do he and his books have on the Roche family?
6. Where do you think Daniel spends all the time he doesn’t spend at the “many Roche family reunions” (p 9)? The Roche family is “bound for generations to their mountains in the Auvergne” (p 18). How would you describe the Ascher family? How would you describe Daniel Ascher, as Hélène comes to know him by the end of the novel?
7. What is the relationship between Daniel’s life as Daniel Roche and his fake travels, and his buried life as Daniel Ascher and his secret apartment? What does it mean that the Roche family is so dismissive of the Black Insignia books?
8. What is the relationship between fiction, discovery, and personal history? What is the significance of Daniel having written of his lost life as Daniel Ascher in the pages of The Smallest Atlas in the World?
9. Describe Hélène’s personality at the beginning of the novel and compare it to her initial impression of Daniel. As her understanding of Daniel deepens and changes, does Hélène herself change?
10. Guillaume and Daniel are both “still passionately connected with anything that reminded [them] of [their] childhood” (p 4). In the novel, is this preoccupation with childhood gendered? Why do you think Guillaume and Daniel both value childhood so much? How do their appreciation of childhood differ? How do Guillaume’s and Hélène’s appreciation for Daniel differ?
11. What is the relationship between Hélène’s initial aversion to The Black Insignia and Daniel, and her initial rejection of her ancestry? (See page 132: “Her ancestors were Chambons and Roches, Auvergne stock whose names and dates were known, the places where they were born and where they died, she’d seen their houses and their tombs in the cemetery.”) Are there any other instances where she rejects or refuses the knowledge of something?
12. On page 168 we’re told, “She was no longer looking for Daniel; she’d found him. She was at 16 rue d’Odessa.” Do you think Daniel has been searching for himself, just as Hélène has been? Considering how often Hélène feels that Daniel indulges in “performance” (pp 17, 54, 147), is there an irony to her finding the “real” Daniel in his reconstruction of the past?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
VERDICT: A literary novel dealing with the place and importance of fiction to help you cope with your past, it is also a unique way of reconsidering the German Occupation in Paris. Highly recommended if you enjoy discovering new promising authors. The Travels of Daniel Ascher addresses a very important page of French history. But it’s much more than that. It’s also a book within a book. Open to new literary horizons, try something new right now! Hélène, 20, goes to study archeology in Paris. She rents a small bedroom from her great-uncle, Daniel Ascher, who has been used to disappearing to exotic places and bring back mysterious gifts for his nephews and nieces. When Guillaume, a friend of hers, visits her one day, he sees the weird picture hanging on the wall and recognizes it as described in a book of the series he loved so much as a kid, The Black Insigna, written by H. R. Sanders. Well, Sanders is none other than Hélène’s great-uncle. After Daniel and Guillaume meet, Hélène gets more intrigued about the man she thought she knew, about his books, his travels, and she tries to discover more about his past. She knows that a Jewish orphan, he was adopted by her family. But as she starts meeting his friends, she discovers there are many layers of mysteries in the man’s life and in her own family. I enjoyed this small novel. Introducing a novel inside the novel, it deals with literature, reality and fiction: what part can fiction play in your life, in your survival, in your way of copying with difficulties, with your past? What do you do with your memories? What’s true in our life? Or what is a necessary façade we build to protect ourselves? This was a unique way of looking back at France’s darkest page of history: the time it was under the German Occupation, and the ordeal the Jewish population had to go through. It addresses these topics in a very delicate manner, little vignettes or gentle touches, also with beautiful writing bordering on lyricism. Because looking straight into the eyes of that reality could still hurt.