I picked up this book on the recommendation of Judge Richard Posner. (It wasn’t a personal recommendation. I heard him mention the book when he was in a panel discussion.) Posner’s recommendation came from his idea that literature had a lot to tell us about the law. And Arch of Triumph had a lot to say about the plight of asylum-seekers in a new country. At the time, I was preparing for oral argument in an asylum case, and thought it would be an interesting read.
The entire book focuses on Ravic, a displaced and well-accomplished German surgeon who is living in Paris during the Second World War. He makes a living—underground, of course—by performing surgeries for two French surgeons who are less qualified and without enough scruples to care that Ravic is unable to work legally. Ravic is a superior surgeon and they give him a small percentage of their fees to do the work.
Despite being able to pursue his livelihood, Ravic lives in constant fear of being found out and deported to Germany. Indeed, he had gone through that process a few times before we come upon him in the novel. During the novel, he is sent to Switzerland after helping an accident victim on the street and being found out by the police. But he always returned, eager to pick up the pieces of a shattered life without any clear direction or foundation.
Ravic is a deep and often enigmatic character. His life is a vicious cycle of late nights, drunken stupors, mid-morning surgeries, and evenings at the club. It is in the midst of this life—if one can call it that—that Ravic encounters another person, perhaps for the first time. The love affair that results is one that makes Ravic question his own life and his whole prior sense of reality. Ravic appears to us as a lost, broken soul. Yet there is a bit of Ravic in all of us, I think. We too are lost along the way and need an encounter with Another to bring us back to reality.
Eventually Ravic realizes he cannot have love on his own terms and cannot give love in his current state of life. He is lost in a country whose government does not acknowledge him but whose citizens rely on him. He lives under constant threat of deportation while trying to make a living and find some temporary relief.
Beyond the love story Remarque presents, there are themes in this book that appeal to every generation and situation. We too are lost in a world that cannot be the end of our love. We too are mere passers-by in this life and must seek what is beyond us. There is an open invitation to Love, and we must accept Love as He comes and on His terms. The Marian “Yes” is no more appropriate than at times like those described in this book, when we must place all our hopes and fears in God and trust that His love will carry us through.
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