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The Tiger Claw

by Shauna Singh Baldwin

The Tiger Claw is a Second World War spy novel with a difference. The spy in question was a real woman, a radio operator who volunteered for Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was dropped behind Nazi lines in occupied France in 1943. She was also a Muslim Indian whose father was a Sufi aristocrat, musician, and teacher and whose mother was an American related to the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy.

Born in Moscow, raised in Paris, and living in London from the start of the war, the young woman – whose name was Noor Khan, alias Norah Baker, alias Jeanne-Marie Regnier, codenamed Madeleine – proved to be a brave and daring operator who was eventually caught by the SS and executed at Dachau. Posthumously she was awarded the George Cross, an MBE, and the Croix de Guerre.

This much is fact. What interests Shauna Singh Baldwin is why Noor Khan did what she did. In order to flesh out Noor’s story, Baldwin creates a love affair between the teenaged Muslim girl in Paris and a gifted Jewish pianist named Armand Rivkin, an affair so intense that Noor will do anything to return to France to find her lover, who has disappeared with his mother into the maw of the Holocaust.

The novel alternates between chapters of direct narrative – Noor training for her mission, arriving in France, meeting the other members of her shadowy cell, finding safe houses for her transmissions – and retrospective chapters composed of a journal she writes in secret while imprisoned by the Nazis at Pforzheim in Germany before her execution. She addresses the journal to someone she calls “ma petite,” and we gradually come to realize that she is talking to the fetus she aborted when Armand impregnated her.

This sort of material is familiar from countless Second World War books, plays, and films. What makes Baldwin’s novel different is the Muslim worldview through which Noor lives and observes her life. Occupied France is a metaphor for Imperial India, which makes the British an uncomfortable parallel to the Nazis. But the politics are not quite that simple, because France as a Western nation can sometimes be cast in the occupier role as well.

When one of her French co-operatives complains about the Nazis calling his countrymen “chimpanzees,” Noor thinks, “The British used such tactics in India and Indians were called ‘brown monkeys’ in London. The French had like terms for Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians….” And devastatingly, at the end of the book, when a Holocaust survivor is talking to Noor’s brother, who wonders if the man will go to Palestine, the survivor says no: “I’d only exchange the watchtowers and barbed wire of Auschwitz for the watchtowers and barbed wire of the kibbutz.” British, Germans, French, and Jews are all viewed as illegitimate interlopers.

The Eastern world, as it appears through this novel, does not go in for colonization or repression of other races or nations. But it indulges in the same evils on a domestic basis through its treatment of women. After Noor’s progressive father dies, her religious uncle Tajuddin arrives in Paris to take over his brother’s family, and Noor is subjected to the same reign of terror the Nazis are inflicting on Europe (including book burnings and forcible confinement). Noor’s brother Kabir is the “tyrant-in-training” who forbids the relationship between Armand and his older sister to proceed.

Although the politics of the novel are refreshing and contentious, Baldwin’s writing style is ponderous and overladen with detail. The description of Noor’s espionage work moves along at a snail’s pace, and the romance with Armand never comes alive for the reader because he is offstage behind a concentration camp wall most of the time. (Wayne Johnston handled the mixture of a real hero, Joey Smallwood, with a fictional heroine, Sheila Fielding, much more successfully in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.)

The real Noor Khan was described as “not overburdened with brains” by one of her British superiors, and it seems that when she was caught by the SS she had in her room a notebook with a complete record of her transmissions in both code and plain language, a lavish gift for the Nazis. “As if no other wireless operator was ever arrested with code books in hand,” is Baldwin’s offhand comment on this serious breach of protocol at the end of The Tiger Claw. Baldwin is out to portray Noor as heroic, and there can be no doubt of the young woman’s courage and determination, even if her judgment may have been less than solid. As a historical curiosity and a political view of the world, this novel has its intriguing merits; as a readable piece of fiction, it leaves a lot to be desired.