Tag Archives: WWII

Marrow and Bone: Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is a road trip novel rife with a sense of historic reckoning. The tale is set in 1988, West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonathan Fabrizius, the centre of this story, is a middle-aged journalist, navigating a middling career. He doesn’t make enough to support himself, but he has an uncle, a furniture manufacturer, who supplements his income with a monthly allowance. Jonathan is a war orphan. His father was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht who died on the Vistula Spit on the Baltic coast. As for his mother, following a horrendous, freezing journey from the Eastern front in a cart, she died in East Prussia after giving birth to Jonathan. This bare bones story provides Jonathan with his sense of identity, and while the history is murky and lacks details, it has provided a sort of heroic, romantic structure of his past.

As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends.

Jonathan lives in a fabulous but decaying building which somehow managed to survive the bombing of WWII. His peculiar girlfriend, Ulla, who works part time at the municipal art gallery, also lives there. It would be a stretch to say that they live together, for while their rooms connect, they both block their room’s access with furniture. That’s a statement, so it’s probably more accurate to say they share things together: such as sex and outings. Ulla is fascinated by “depictions of cruelty in the visual arts,” so her “shelves were full of books showing all sorts of Inquisition torture” But she’s also interested in modern atrocities but “none of these terrible images left the slightest impression”on her.

Marrow and Bone

With Jonathan’s relationship with Ulla moving towards a termination (that he’s unaware of) he receives an invitation from the Santubara car maker. The company offers Jonathan a job, a trip to East Prussia. It’s a “test-driving tour for motoring journalists to convince them of the outstanding quality of its latest” car. Jonathan agrees and soon finds himself on a road trip accompanying diminutive harem-pant wearing Frau Anita Winkelvoss, and race car driver Hansi Strohtmeyer.

There’s humour in the Germans’ attitude towards Poland and the Polish. This ranges from amusing (Jonathan, Anita, and Hansi tend to make sweeping, unflattering generalizations) to queasy observations. 

She praised the fact that they’d been able to take a shower in this hotel without a problem and was astonished that all the Poles were so friendly. To us Germans! After what we did to them. A third of the population exterminated and all the towns and cities destroyed.

Along the way to their destination, the three Germans stop at various historic sites such as Danzig and Marienburg which “the Russians had used for target practice.” At one point several groups of Germans converge: the homeland association, and a delegation from Bremen, the “Socialist Pupils Council of the Rosa Luxemberg Comprehensive there to see “what sort of fascist revanchism was being played out.” Touring the sites has awkward moments with the Polish tour guide leaving out “the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht.” It’s entirely possible that members of the homeland association “had been here before, as children, with their school or with the Hitler Youth.” At one point the German tourists see an exhibition of concentration camp drawings, and the “homeland association slunk past these,” while a teacher “perked up” and yet another tourist, who had been imprisoned in Dachau wants to move on. 

The book, with dark humour, examines how these Germans ‘deal’ with their history and “the business with the Jews.” Frau Winkelvoss has definitely moved on from “all that Jewish stuff,” and her ignorance shows. Another major theme is human suffering as spectacle. The characters here are removed from human suffering–it’s a thing of the past, history or even Art. 

In Stutthof they had a pleasant surprise, as Hansi Strohtmeyer put it: the concentration camp was shut. 

At one point the three travellers visit Hitler’s Bunker, and again, Jonathan, while the most informed of the three, seems to lack understanding of Hitler’s psychology. This is in many ways a book that deals with our ‘roots’ and confronting our personal and national mythologies and history, and for Jonathan, finally, the trip has an unexpected emotional impact. 

Review copy

Translated by Charlotte Collins

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

Honeymoon: Patrick Modiano

“When was the turning point in my life, after which summers suddenly seemed to me to be different from the ones I had known up to then?”

In Patrick Modiano’s haunting novel Honeymoon, Jean, a documentary film maker checks into a hotel in Milan. He’s in the bar when he learns that another guest, a woman, committed suicide in her room 2 days earlier. There’s a certain curiosity of course–especially when he learns that she was attractive, French and drank the same drink as him. Later, thanks to a short obituary in the paper, Jean discovers that he knew this woman. Her name was Ingrid Rigaud and Jean met the Rigauds 6 years previously. It was one of those chance encounters that later takes on more significance with time. Jean, down on his luck, was hitchhiking and the Rigauds gave him a lift, took him to stay at their villa, and finally bought him a train ticket home. Jean was 20 at the time with his whole life ahead of him. He didn’t really understand that the Rigauds were damaged people.

Honeymoon

Move forward eighteen years. Jean, now established in his career and married to Annette who is carrying on, none too subtly, with a friend. His career is stale and seems past its peak:

I wanted to tell them that we were too old for the profession that can only be described by the antiquated name of ‘explorer.’ How much longer would we go on showing our documentary films in the Salle Pleyel or in the provincial cinemas that were becoming fewer all the time? When we were very young we had wanted to follow the example of our elders, but it was already too late for us. There was no more virgin territory to explore. 

Jean, obsessed with what became of the Rigauds, has been secretly working on Ingrid’s biography for years. Jean, a man whose films concentrate on explorers decides to disappear from his own life rather as Ingrid disappeared from hers, and he plans to hole up in Paris and complete Ingrid’s biography. He tells Annette and his friends that he’s leaving for Brazil, but he has no intention of taking the flight; instead he stays in Paris and disappears. Well … tries to.

Honeymoon takes the reader into typical Modiano territory. Memory of course, but since this novel is not as opaque as others I’ve read by this author, Time plays a much bigger role. The years are rolled out; the past and present, but there’s this curious sense of overlapping, circles of  time. Jean is twenty when he meets the Rigauds and they were the age he is when he ‘disappears’ from his life. He ‘misses’ Ingrid in Milan by a mere 2 days. Would her suicide have occurred if Jean had run into her? And what about that other occasion when he ran into a solitary melancholy Ingrid in Paris? Could Jean have said anything or done anything to help? In retrospect, he hadn’t even asked pertinent questions. At one point, Jean remembers his time with the Rigauds:

I saw myself again, twenty years earlier. with Ingrid and Rigaud, in the semi-darkness outside the bungalow. Around us, shouts and burst of laughter similar to those now reaching me from the terrace. I was now about the same age as Ingrid and Rigaud were then, and whereas their attitude had seemed so strange then, I shared it this evening. I remembered what Ingrid had said: “We’ll pretend to be dead.”

As so often with a Modiano novel, a telephone book plays a role. A telephone rings in an empty apartment as we call the past.

I’ve read a number of Modiano novels now and IMO this is his finest. It hit a nerve. A friend committed suicide a decade ago and I often imagine myself stepping somehow through the corridors of time to stop her. In this novel, Modiano creates the sense that the departed are there in the next room. We just have to find a way to pass through the door.

I was somewhere else, in another summer, more and more distant, and with time the light of that summer underwent a curious transformation; far from fading, like old over-exposed photos, the contrasts of sun and shade became so accentuated that I recall everything in black and white. 

(I went back and rechecked the gaps between various meetings and they seem correct but the years slide across each other and I may have made an error)

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

Abigail: Magda Szabó

“Once again, as so many times before, Gina had a sense of being trapped in the chilly, suffocation air inside a bell-jar.”

Madga Szabó’s brilliant novel, Abigail, is set during WWII. It’s Budapest, and life for 14-year-old Georgina Vitay, ‘Gina’, the daughter of a widowed General, has changed. Her beloved French governess has had to return to France, and Gina lives a fairly secluded life with visits to her somewhat unreliable, giddy, vain Aunt Mimó. Gina also has a simmering romance in the form of Lt. Feri Kuncz but since he’s not welcome in the General’s house, meetings take place at Aunt Mimó’s “afternoon teas.”

Gina is stunned when her father announces one day that she is to leave for a boarding school “in the provinces.”

In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and merely informed her what would happen. If he had given any kind of explanation, anything she could understand and accept, it might have been easier for her to bear the thought of being torn away from her familiar world.

It all happens so quickly and Gina imagines that an imminent stepmother is at the root cause of the upheaval. She’s allowed to say farewell to her aunt but not her friends or the staff. She is not to mention she’s leaving Budapest and Gina isn’t told where she’s going so her destination remains a secret. Gina is unhappy and peevish about her father’s decision which she sees as a betrayal and a rejection, but it’s clear to the reader that the General fears for his daughter’s safety, and as it turns out, his fears are very much warranted.

Gina’s father drives her to the distant Bishop Matula Academy for Girls which is located “almost on the Eastern border.” While the strict school is protestant, there’s the feel of a convent. The building is “like a fortress” with a barred entrance, and the girls must hand over their worldly possessions when they arrive. Soap, towels, a dressing gown, and even a toothbrush are deemed against “regulations.” 

Surely she did not have to be told that such trumpery would be of no interest to a good christian girl.

She is given the plain uniform, her hair is cut, arranged in plaits and tied with a black shoelace.

Gina was now trembling with shock. They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought and her breathing became a rapid pant.

The stricter the school, the more secrets the girls keep between themselves. At first Gina is generously welcomed by her fellow pupils, so at least she has companionship and friends, but she makes a terrible mistake which leads to her being ostracized.

But as the hours dragged by she began to panic. This was something she had not reckoned with: the terrifying self-discipline of the Matula. These girls were not like any other. They had been brought up in their own special world and trained to keep their silence. 

In this tight, oppressive atmosphere, the society between the girls is recreated marvelously. “Those who couldn’t keep up, or didn’t work, were sent away at the end of the year, never to set foot in the building again.” Under strict discipline, these teenage girls study hard and suppress most of their natural behaviour, but like all repressed behaviour it bubbles up, unable to be completely contained. According to tradition, a garden statue named Abigail assists the girls with their various troubles, so many of the girls take their sorrows to Abigail–the statue who leaves notes and and even passes along letters to some of the girls. The girls’ role model is the legendary Mitsi Horn who attended the school decades earlier and flouted the rules by wearing an engagement ring on her finger. Now widowed by WWI, and with her only son killed in action in WWII, she lives close by and occasionally hosts a group of girls.

Gina could easily imagine what Abigail’s friend the eighteen-year-old Mitsi Horn must have looked like in the days when she could still laugh so loudly it could be heard, they said, at the porter’s lodge.

Another great diversion for the girls is the relationship between some of the teachers. There’s definitely a love triangle afoot with handsome young Kalmár in love with Susanna but she seems to only have eyes for Kónig–a middle-aged bumbler whose kindness to Gina only generates contempt. There are disturbing incidents around town and even in the school which indicate there’s an active war resistance afoot. The General’s visits are few; at first Gina is hurt by what she sees as his abandonment but then after she tries to run away, her father is forced to take her into his confidence. Gina, who first saw the school as a punishment, realises it’s a sanctuary.

It’s only January but I can easily call this as one of the best books I will read this year. It’s that good. Gina is forced to grow up and make mature decisions that someone decades older would find difficult. Yes it’s a coming-of-age story, adventurous in parts, but it’s also a story of betrayal, of the value of self-discipline and incredible courage on some many levels. I’ve read 3 Szabó novels now: Abigail, Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is the best of the three IMO. It’s an amazing tale. 

Review copy

Translated by Len Rix

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Szabo Magda

Fell Murder: E. C. R. Lorac (1944)

“Hate is a bad master.”

E. C. R. Lorac’s Fell Murder takes place during WWII in the Lake District. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) deftly juxtaposes the beauty, tranquility and durability of the landscape against the foibles of human passions and the dark days of WWII.

The Garth family live at Garthmere Hall, a rambling building part “medieval in origin, but succeeding generations had altered it again and again. It was in part great house, in part farm house.” The house is ruled by patriarch “grim” Robert Garth but the farm is worked and managed by his middle-aged daughter Marion. The eldest son, Richard, married a woman against his father’s wishes, so he was cast out from the family home 25 years earlier.  The woman, Mary Ashwaite, subsequently died in Canada. No one has heard about Richard since. Also living at Garthmere Hall is Charles Garth, the second son who escaped from Malaya  and returned home penniless. There’s also Malcolm Garth, a sickly young man from Robert Garth’s second marriage, and Elizabeth Meldon, a distant relative of the Garths. She’s in the Land Army.

Fell Murder

The novel opens with John Staple, the Garth bailiff striding across the Garthmere land and enjoying the view from the hills across the countryside which is “an unchanging certainty in an unstable and changing world” Staple is shocked when he meets the prodigal son Richard also hiking across the hills. Richard is on leave and has chosen to spend the week visiting the land he loves. The Garthmere land, incidentally, is entailed so Richard will inherit. Richard asks Staple to keep his visit secret. He has no intention of seeing his family, and will soon return to sea.

Staple’s conversation with Richard is overheard, and so Richard’s presence in the region is no longer secret. Shortly thereafter, old irascible Robert Garth has an accident with a loaded gun, but luckily no one is hurt. But after a fox hunt, Robert Garth is found murdered in a small shed on Garthmere land.

Local police superintendent Layng is called in to investigate, but he’s not a local (who still talk about the Battle of Flodden Field) and cannot penetrate this closed culture. He is brusque and doesn’t treat some of the landowners politely as their clothes don’t signal their status:

He had forgotten the fact that the farmers hereabouts thought nothing of ancient clothes, dung-laden boots and scarecrow hats. 

He’s impatient and sorely underestimates country ways.

Layng had a slightly pompous manner and a tendency to regard the shrewd farming folk as being slow of understanding because they habitually spoke slowly and thought for a long time before they gave vent to speech.

Layng gets nowhere with the case and so Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives, commandeers a bicycle and starts investigating. ….

While I guessed the perp about halfway through, Fell Murder was an entertaining read. Here we are in WWII with petrol rationing, signposts removed (back in place finally), and black marketing of eggs. And now there’s murder, and an inheritance that isn’t exactly ‘fair.’  While these are dark times indeed, Lorac elegantly and descriptively displays a love of the land, and how Macdonald understands these Lake District folk, giving them respect. Lorac shows how a crime that seems impenetrable to one investigator can be solved by someone who takes a different, less hostile approach. Here’s Macdonald and Marion:

“Thanks you very much for being so patient,” replied Macdonald

“You remind me of my dentist a bit.” she answered unexpectedly. “He’s always very polite, but he pulls my tooth out just the same.”

The excellent introduction from Martin Edwards discusses the “sub-genre of crime fiction, the ‘return of the prodigal’ story.” That had not occurred to me before, so as always Martin Edwards continues to illuminates this well-loved genre.

Review copy

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lorac E.C.R.

A Season in Sinji: J.L. Carr

“Many a time since I’ve wondered if, all at once, and for the first time in his life, he knew that class and rank don’t mean a thing when the cards are down.”

I enjoyed A Month in the Country very much and decided to seek out other novels from J.L. Carr. A Season In Sinji, which almost sounds like a companion novel, is a completely different read, yet the two novels have shared themes: the hell of war, of course, but also companionship between males, and (the price of) survival. A Month in the Country explores the joys and pain of life through a horribly disfigured WWI veteran who retreats to the countryside to restore a medieval mural. A Season in Sinji is set in WWII and is basically the story of three men who vie for the same woman, and then later find themselves in West Africa.

A SEASON IN SINJI

The novel, is narrated by Yorkshire native, Flanders, a man whose farming background and strict religious upbringing forge his strong character. Flanders tells his tale in hindsight, and it’s clear that while Flanders survived the war, that this survival comes with a price. Flanders volunteered to fight and quickly became friends with Wakerly  saying “we were more than mates; he could have been a brother. I shall never forget him. Though I let him down in the end.” 

Whereas Wakerly and Flanders have an instant rapport, they both intensely dislike Turton, who is an excellent photographer with an “absolute unquestioning superiority.” At first ‘war’ is boredom with the men stuck at an RAF camp watching others shipped out. To kill timeWakerly and Flanders begin hanging at the local pub where they meet Caroline, whose parents have been killed in a London air raid. Wakerly courts Caroline (with Flanders as an awkward third). Turton, the most aggressive male of the three men, spots Caroline. Armed with his “utter confidence” he simply takes over, and that would appear to be the end of the episode with Caroline.

Flanders and Wakerly are posted to RAF Sinji in West Africa, “the edge of war,” and it’s on the journey that things begin to unravel. Then Turton arrives, now an officer, and begins to make life hell for Flanders and Wakerly.

And that’s another thing about Africa; it’s never still. There’s always bumping and rustling, birds screaming, and the stir of millions of insects groping around. And feet. Feet padding softly past. The blacks sleep in shifts; they don’t keep regular hours like us, so there’s always someone stirring and watching. It became an obsession with me the longer I stayed there. Everybody had obsessions before they left The Coast. Even the biggest clods began to do crazy things like drawing birds in the sand and the ones with better educations usually cracked completely, and began feeding them. My two obsessions were the sound of feet running, and all the places that went on and on east of us, beyond the tropic rain forests on the other side of the mountains, right across the dry lakes and the deserts to Addis Ababa, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar, all full of people who slept in shifts stirring and watching and running around in darkness. 

The narrator’s point, in the above quote is that Africa ‘does’ things to the British RAF personnel sent there, and that the educated/upper class are perhaps the worst off. According to Flanders: “Africa either put you flat on your back or else brought out the very devil in you.” Sinji is nothing more than “three beads strung along a gravel road”–some rapidly constructed ‘buildings’ for the men, but there’s simply nowhere to go, nothing to do. The men, however, find that their pay takes them far with the local women–much to Flanders’ disgust. But other men get their entertainment from harassing those they work with and those with lower rank. Turton, in particular, begins a campaign of psychological warfare against Flanders and Wakerly, making their lives living hell.

The nature of war throws various types together who would not cross paths in peacetime, and class plays a huge role here. Concentrating on just a handful of men, Carr examines personality clashes in close quarters, throwing rank in as a weapon in human pathology. One of the great personalities here is ‘the Birdman’

He knew so much that I switched off whenever he began to reel off lists of birds he was looking forward to seeing–the ibis, the calliope humming-bird, the flamingo…His wife probably was missing him in bed and the garden, but I bet she wasn’t sorry to be having a break from the birds.

The other spring of wisdom was a medical orderly known as Blubber, who looked like a dropsical Eskimo and who was a sex fiend. He was at the other end of the boredom scale–just vulgar. The Birdman and he just grated against each other–their birds were not of the same feather.

There’s a pivotal incident that takes place involving the natives which raises certain moral questions. Wakerly and Flanders find themselves disagreeing with each other. Wakerly wants to take a stand and damn the consequences while Flanders differs:

I’ll wait for the right time before I settle with Turton and, when it does come, I’ll choose it and the place and only when I’m sure of winning.

Through Flanders’ eyes we see how these British men cope at RAF Sinji. Some men fall apart and some rise to the occasion. There’s one man, Glapthorn, who Flanders considers a poor excuse for a human being, but even Glapthorn generates some empathy in the end. While Wakerly and Flanders drift apart due to moral differences, Flanders becomes friendly with Slingsby, a fellow Northerner with similar moral values.

Two final notes: Flanders has a strong distaste for homosexuals which permeates some of his relationships. Cricket plays a large role in the book, and those who like the game will probably appreciate the many cricket references.

On the cover of my edition there’s a quote “The best of J.L. Carr’s novels.” It’s certainly strong and memorable. Plus bleak which I always like. A Month in the Country includes the theme of healing from war. There’s no healing in A Season in Sinji.

 

8 Comments

Filed under Carr, J.L., Fiction

A German Officer in Occupied Paris: Ernst Jünger (The War Journals 1941-1945)

“Who will stand by us after these spectacles have finished?”

It wasn’t easy to read Ernst Jünger’s A German Officer in Occupied Paris. There’s the entire: “they were the bad side” aspect of things of course, but my difficulties … no my discomfort … from reading this book came from a different source. More of that later.

The lengthy, informative introduction from Elliot Neaman offers a summary of Jünger’s life and views. Ernst Jünger fought in WWI and was wounded 14 times. Following WWI, he wrote Storm of Steel (which I’ve never read and probably wouldn’t like), and was “one of Germany’s foremost authors of the war generation.” When WWII arrived, Jünger, in his mid 40s, joined his old company,  and in 1941, he served as a military censor in Paris. Not only did he read the letters home written by German soldiers, but he read “French newspapers and other publications for signs of insubordination.”  While performing that job, Jünger kept a journal, and it’s a rather peculiar read.  The book contains two journals “from his tour of duty in Paris, his sojourn in the Caucasus, and his visits and then homecoming to the house in Kirchorts.”

A German Officer

As I read the Paris entries, the title of Richard Attenborough’s film “Oh What a Lovely War,” kept coming into my head. Yes I suppose someone had to serve in Paris, the lucky buggers, while others were on the Eastern Front.  Jünger’s office was in the Hotel Majestic and he socialized with “intellectuals and artists across the political spectrum.” Jünger carried on several affairs and waxes on about beauty. We read about his dreams and what he was reading. Where was the war?? It was all a bit horrifying, and yes I read about how he sympathized with various people and knew about the plot to kill Hitler, but honestly, the journal left a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I expected Jünger to bitch about Hitler (mention is made in the intro of how Jünger burned many personal papers), and Jünger seems too intelligent to be caught venting spleen on the pages of his diaries, and yet …. there’s something also repugnant here.

Like a God in France, Jünger operated on the edge of politics in Paris, rather like a butterfly fluttering among the resistors and collaborators. He didn’t trust the generals, who had taken a personal oath to Hitler, to be able to carry out a coup. Jean Cocteau later quipped: “Some people had dirty hands, some had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”

More than anything, the diary raised, for me at least, the question of moral culpability. Jünger “saw himself as part of the resistance to Hitler even though he believed that active opposition was pointless.” He refused many official posts under Hitler, and the intro goes into depth regarding Jünger’s involvement/knowledge of plots against Hitler.

I thought about The White Rose. Most of the members of White Rose were very young. Their courageous acts did not have the desired political results, so did they die for nothing? And yet when I read about Jünger, living in luxury, doing well and rubbing elbows with all sorts even as he did not approve of Hitler, well it sort of turned my stomach. At one point, Jünger references “charnel houses” and writes about “the monstrous atrocities perpetrated by the Security Service after entering Kiev. Trains were again mentioned that carried Jews into poison gas tunnels. Those are rumors, and I note them as such but extermination is certainly occurring on a huge scale.” And yet then Jünger immediately moves, bizarrely, into this WTF moment, denying individual mandate and responsibility, mourning how war has lost its  elegance and turned grubby.

I am overcome by a loathing for the uniforms, the epaulettes, the medals, the weapons, all the glamour I have loved so much. Ancient chivalry is dead; wars are waged by technicians. 

A new dark reality, a darker mood that can’t escape the scenes he faces, enters Jünger’s entries as he experiences life in Russia:

The deluge of sludge even penetrates the interiors of the buildings. In the morning, I was in a field hospital that rose from the center of a yellowish-brown morass. As I entered, the casket of a first lieutenant was being carried toward me.

Yesterday he succumbed to his sixth wound of the war. Back in Poland, he had sacrificed an eye.

The journals contain interesting sections, but Jünger’s self-censoring damages the read. If I read an eyewitness account from someone who lived through some horrific/incredible moment in history, I want details. But it’s impossible to tell what Jünger was really thinking, and so perhaps one tantalizing aspect of the book is psychological more than anything else. All this stuff is swirling around his life but we hear about the harmless social fluff for the most part. For example, he notes “In Charleville, I was a witness at a military tribunal. I used the opportunity to buy books, like novels by Gide and various works by Rimbaud.” I wanted to hear about the tribunal, but alas, it vanished into Jünger’s book buying.

Review copy

Translated by Thomas Hansen

13 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

An Untouched House: Willem Frederik Hermans

an untouched house

An Untouched House from Willem Frederik Hermans covers a brief period in 1944 during WWII. The novel opens with the protagonist, a Dutchman, one of a group of partisans, trudging through the ravaged countryside when the men stop for a rest. Immediately the author sets the scene for war as spectacle when the narrator notes a dogfight that rages in the skies above:

All of the combatants seemed to be taking it easy as if the war was a large sick body that had just been given a shot of morphine. The only thing happening: a high altitude dogfight, two against one. I watched it, a blade of dry grass stuck between my teeth. Like skywriters the fighter pilots were drawing a pattern of white loops on the blue background, as if for our entertainment and no other reason.

There’s also a sense of chaos. The narrator cannot communicate with anyone else in his unit as the partisan band is composed of mainly Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians. Even though the Germans are the common enemy, after a friendly fire incident, the Russians hauled off, and executed, five of the partisans. As the raggle taggle band of men, thirsty and tired, continue to forge ahead, they enter a spa town which appears to be abandoned. After slaughtering any Germans who stand in their way, some of the partisans enter a bar and start drinking. The narrator isn’t allowed to join them; he’s shoved away with the words “Booby Trap” shouted at him repeatedly.  And so the narrator keeps walking. He discovers a house, standing in the middle of a “sloping, dark green law,” an oasis of calm, civilization and peace, that appears to be untouched by the war.

Imagine never having been anywhere other than here, or having conquered this house, this hill, as the solution to a riddle. 

He wipes his feet on the mat, and with a feeling of reverence, he enters the house.  There’s a pot of soup simmering on the stove. Whoever lived in the house left in a hurry:

Draped over a sofa was a lady’s coat. It spoke like the objects in detective stories. It said: although I am expensive I am lying here carelessly bunched together. Someone who was about to put me on and step through the door dropped me here. She’s noticed she’d forgotten something.

The temptation just to take a few moments of peace and quiet … to linger … and to have  a bath is simply too much, and so the narrator strips off his uniform and takes a bath.

I stood before a mirror in which I could see myself from head to toe to shave. If I had a room lined entirely with mirrors I could stay in it forever without getting bored like Robinson Crusoe on his island.

Those who fight wars have an entirely different reality from those who stay at home. This is especially true for the wealthy, and whoever lived in this house obviously led a pleasant life of plenty right up until the moment they fled. The contrast between the life of the narrator and the life he steps into is startling, so it’s perfectly understandable when he lingers.

This is a dark, brutal, haunting portrayal of war. Human nature is reduced to its most basic level: survival, but there’s also great cruelty here, a confusion of loyalties and values.  Many war novels emphasize camaraderie between men, especially WWI novels, but there’s no camaraderie here. The partisans are fighting the Germans, but that’s as far as the ties go. There are no relationships between the men, only aggression, and the aggression, when it occurs is vile, explosive, base and primal.

Review copy

Translated by David Colmer

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hermans Willem Frederik

A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940):Iris Origo

Some books serve as incredible mirrors of history. These books have the power to create a range of emotions in the reader: disturbed, sad, horror.  I felt uncomfortable and disturbed by Curio Malaparte’s books The Skin and The Kremlin Ball. Teffi’s Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea was poignant rather than uncomfortable–a haunting read, and when I finished the book,  I found myself thinking about the many people she encountered on her epic journey.

Iris Origo’s A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940), also from New York Review Books, another mirror of a particular time, doesn’t have that uncomfortable feeling, and neither is it haunting. Instead imagine an Anglo-American woman of considerable privilege, brought up in Italy, married to an Italian, living on a grand estate in Tuscany, who records events with intelligent, cool detachment and a growing sense of unease, as they occur in 1939-1940.

A chill in the air

The book opens with Iris Origo on a train “packed” full of squadristi–“the fascists della prima ora, those who belonged to the first squads of 1919.” The men are headed to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Fasci and also to hear a speech from the Duce. It’s a brilliant opening which shows fascism deeply embedded in society, ‘respectable’ fascists who look “good-natured, friendly and peace-loving. About 80% of them belong unmistakably to the working-class; the others look like small tradesmen or employees. Impossible not to like them; impossible too not to feel that Fascism was, in its beginning, a genuine revolutionary movement of the people.” 

The rumors of war are just that. Yes, there’s unrest in the world, and as events unfold, Origo takes particular note of the newspapers, again with that cool detachment she recognises shifts in attitudes. There’s a “sympathetic tone now adopted towards Russia,” which she intelligently realises “suggests that there may be some foundations in the persistent rumours of a German-Russian rapprochement.”

Although Mussolini makes speeches about arming the country, Origo expresses the thought that people are “entirely right in saying that Mussolini intends to avoid war,” and yet she speculates about “Mussolini’s capacity to act as a moderating influence on Hitler.” Meanwhile foreigners are expelled, foreign papers are not available, while “voluntary exodus” requires German subjects to move back to Germany and Italian subjects of Austrian origin to “move either to Germany or to other Italian provinces.”

Other restrictions kick in, there’s the last day that cars can be used, and on this day, the author visits old friends. The sale of coffee and tea is forbidden, and the English leave the country “except for a few very old ladies, who can’t move.” Still the general mood is that “it won’t come to a real war: the Duce will get is out of it somehow.” The diary notes how people manage, or fail to manage, the depression of anti-fascist neighbours, the mothers who worry that sons will be hauled off to fight. The war creeps closer and the mood darkens…

Iris Origo initially admired the Duce; her husband was, at one point, the president of the local fascist consorzi (landowners’ association). As the diary continues, we see the author’s attitude shift until she is galvanised into action, and that’s the story that continues in her book: War in Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary 1943-44. Sometimes book introductions are spoilers, and while the introduction, written by Lucy Hughes-Hallet, explains some of what happens in the book, it also explains who Iris Origo was, her connections, and her politics. I’d recommend reading it prior to starting the book.

Review copy

6 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

The House by the Lake: Thomas Harding

In 2013, Thomas Harding traveled from London to Berlin in order to visit the weekend house in Groβ Glienicke built by his great-grandfather, Dr Alfred Alexander, a house which, by necessity was abandoned by Harding’s Jewish family in the harsh year of 1936.  The house “was on the front lines of history–the lives of its inhabitants ripped up and remade again and again, simply because of where they lived.” That statement is true for many of the holiday home’s inhabitants. Harding’s relatives were lucky enough to escape to London after his great-grandfather, who had long held the opinion that “his countrymen would see sense, that they would finally understand the madness of Hitler and his cronies,” finally agreed that the family must flee.

The Alexanders’ lake house was an idyllic holiday home for the well-to-do Jewish family. In the 1890s, a wealthy businessman, Otto Wollank with an eye for a bargain, bought a large estate near the Groβ Glienicke lake, fifteen kilometres outside of the city of Berlin.  Under Wollank, a former member of the Danzig Death’s Head Hussars, initially the estate prospered, but by the mid 20s it faced ruin. Wollank decided to lease out lakeside land which could tempt wealthy city dwellers to establish second homes in the country. Consequently, in 1927 Dr Alexander leased the land for 15 years and built a modest lakeside home for his children.

The location of the lakeside home turned out to have an impressive historic significance. Post WWII, the Berlin wall ran (inconveniently) between the lake and the land, so it’s easy to imagine the difficulties residents faced. But even before that, extreme political views arrived in Groβ Glienicke, marking the village out as an early area of turmoil.

The house by the lake

Wollank’s son-in-law, Robert von Schultz, was a rabid anti-Semite, “a product of the street battles of the 1920s, believing in the violent overthrow of the government, the supremacy of the German people and the importance of race.” Von Schultz was the regional leader of a right-wing paramilitary organization, and with the company von Schultz kept at the Wollank estate, soon there were “rumours of abductions, midnight interrogations and even torture.” Yet in spite of this, many of the leasehold tenants who had holiday homes on the Wollank land were Jewish.

The Night of the Long Knives saw von Schultz imprisoned, questioned, and placed on trial. In the meantime, his wife was approached by a representative of Herman Göring who asked her to sell a large part of the estate–a section which was later to used as an airfield– the airfield Hitler used “for his personal journeys, including to his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, providing a degree of privacy that he could not find at Berlin’s other airfields.

Once the Alexanders fled to England, the occupancy of the lakeside house fell into freefall. Residents lived there as they fell in and out of political favour, and during the Soviet occupation post WWII, the village became the site of a series of horrendous unsolved murders. Later, the house, under communal living, was at one time occupied by a somewhat lackadaisical Stasi informant known as “Ignition Key.”

When the author arrived to inspect the home (for the second time) in 2013 he found a wreck of a house that was “now owned by the city of Potsdam,” scheduled for demolition, and the author was told that in order to save the building, he would need to prove “it was culturally and historically significant.” That’s where all the research comes in.

It’s impossible to write the history of this house without writing a mini history of Germany–such was the impact of politics on the residents of this house. Readers may find themselves familiar with some of the historic information included here, but nonetheless, this is a remarkable story.

Review copy.

5 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes

“After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless,” Goebbels confides in his diary on 7 August.” Then there will be some shooting.”

Berlin 1936: Sixteeen Days in August from Oliver Hilmes offers a kaleidoscope view of the Olympic games through the stories of a range of people: Nazi leaders, diplomats, socialites, writers, journalists, spies, nightclub owners, and, of course, the athletes. All this is set against the city of Berlin: a city in flux with the glories and decadence of Weimar culture fading fast–although some people were slower than others to catch on to the new reality and the horrific future.

The book, which contains some marvelous photographs from the period, begins on August 1, 1936 with the president of the International Olympic committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour, who according to Goebbels’ diary entry is one of “the Olympians [who] look like the directors of a flea circus.” This comment sets the tone for the book: appearance vs reality. For while the Olympics are solemnly held with respect for tradition, to Hitler, the games were a wonderful opportunity for propaganda. Already, on page 16 when the games open, Hitler is presented with a “symbolic Olive branch” which is followed by the athletes, who “represented by the German weightlifter, Rudolf Ismayr–take the Olympic oath.” Then in a break from protocol “after taking the vow, he waves  a Swastika flag instead of the Olympic one.”

Parties and receptions: the Olympics are swathed with glittering events. As journalist Bella Fromm notes, “The propaganda machinery is trying to give visitors a positive impression of the Third Reich using the Olympics as camouflage.”

But behind the scenes of the Olympics, interesting events are taking place. Interior Minister, Wilhem Frick ordered a “gypsy manhunt day,” and two weeks before the Olympic games opened, around 600 people are rounded up and dumped in a camp on the outskirts of Berlin. The publication of the Nazi hate-rag Der Stürmer is suspended while all these important foreign visitors are in town.

There’s a ‘while Rome burns’ feel to the book. Berlin’s famous nightclubs are still operating, but “the Quartier Latin is a volcano, and patrons dance on its edge.” Similarly, The Ciro Bar and The Sherbini bar are thriving, but time is running out…

Underneath the idea that life in Berlin is ‘normal’ we see glimpses of the seemingly innocuous ‘Travel Union Club’ otherwise known as Legion Condor, well armed, heading to Spain. And then there’s the “free German press in exile” who publish and smuggle into Germany a 16 page pamphlet.

“Get to Know Beautiful Germany: An Indispensable Guide For Every Visitor to the Olympic Games in Berlin.” The cover featured an idyllic German landscape, but inside a map pinpoints almost all of the then-existing concentration camps, penal facilities and court prisons. ‘SA torture chambers have not been included,” a footnote read. “They are too many in number.”

In Berlin, American Author Thomas Wolfe who “doesn’t like Jews” mouths off about how “people are free to speak and write and think some things in Germany that they are not free to speak and write in America. For example, in Germany you are free to speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are bad, corrupt and unpleasant people. In America, you are not free to say this.” But Wolfe expresses this naive opinion to the wrong person: Mildred Harnack, and it’s from her that for the first time, Wolfe hears the term, “concentration camp.

Since arriving in Berlin, Wolfe has never seen any public evidence of the tyranny she described. But what if Germany is putting on a show to fool him and the other Olympic visitors? What if the Games are just a gigantic piece of propaganda? And what if the Germans Wolfe meets every day are just extras in an exceedingly horrible play?

Berlin 1936 is initially a dizzying read, but then the central idea of appearance vs reality takes over. The author’s original approach to a slice of history is compelling and effective. Each chapter is prefaced with the report of the weather (there’s great irony here) and police reports are scattered through the text. At the end of the book, there’s a section ‘what became of.’ and in this chapter, the author traces the lives of some of the characters mentioned.

Review copy

Translated by Jefferson Chase

2 Comments

Filed under Hilmes Oliver, Non Fiction