Memoir tells of turbulent childhood in postwar Paris
- Credit: Courtesy of Patrice Saiman
Belsize Park resident Patrice Saiman's memoir tells of adultery, murder, adventure - and extraordinary courage.
The Missing Baluster retraces the 72-year-old's childhood in a fractured post-war Paris with his single mother, up to his arrival in the UK - where he would head a multi-million pound steel company.
Saiman began scribbling notes about his childhood in 2018 and last year, decided to turn them into a book. “Our children, the grandchildren, they all told me it was something I should do,” he says. “They wanted me to stop talking about it, I guess.”
He was born in Paris in 1948, from a one night stand between a decorated French officer and lawyer and a woman half his age. His Jewish father Raoul died suddenly when he was four, having recovered from meningitis, and he spent his childhood moving around as his mother Marcelle struggled to pay the rent. He attended 10 different schools and lived in a children’s home for a short period, but by 17 he was working as a door-to-door salesman and selling records to make ends meet.
At 18, he left his mother in France and moved to Bristol with his sister, living "precariously" and attending Bristol University lectures even though he wasn’t a student. An unpublished book on JFK was his first writing attempt.
“Trying to find out what happened to JFK was really about what happened to my father, which I could not find.”
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The Missing Baluster - the title a metaphor for his unanswered questions about his parents' lives - begins by retracing their stories. "It's about trying to understand what happened to them, how that affected them and their way of living”.
He interweaves stories of survival - how his parents, and others survived the war - with his own. His father was a prisoner of war for three months but escaped to join General de Gaulle in London and was among the first division to liberate Paris under General Leclerc. When Jewish friends tracked down and killed a Nazi after the war, Raoul defended them in court. Meanwhile Patrice's mother and sister saw out the occupation of Paris protected by her relationship with a German commandant.
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“Albert was a very close friend of my father. During the war one man became very friendly with his sister and said, ‘I will protect you from the Nazis.’ He was in fact a Nazi. Albert’s whole family were denounced and sent to where the Jews were arrested in Paris. He survived the war, and he and his brother Simon, swore they would find the Nazi and succeeded.
“We have no idea how people were able to survive a five-year war,” he adds. "We’re talking one year of surviving Covid compared to that.”
But the book isn’t all “doom and gloom”. "There are fun stories too.”
The narrative ends as Saiman becomes a junior trader for a major London based steel trading company, the start of a slow climb that would see him lead a management buyout of the company 19 years later.
Living with adversity has made him relish a challenge. “I don’t know if it’s bravery, I just don't have anything to lose,” he says. “The level of uncertainty which I lived with as a child has helped me to embrace the uncertainties of life.”
And after his unsteady childhood, Saiman has found stability since moving to Hampstead in 1968. He now lives with his wife of 45 years in Belsize Park.
After using the first lockdown to write The Missing Baluster, he is now working on a sequel about his adulthood and career which he hopes will improve his understanding of himself by “linking my childhood to what happens afterwards.”
After a lifetime of running away from it, he’s finally taking the time to look back.