Stuart Neville (stuartneville.com)
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)
It is 1963 and Ireland is preparing for an historic visit from US president, John F. Kennedy. The death of the third foreign national, a German businessman, in the space of a handful of days could threaten not only the presidential visit, but the relationship between Ireland the US; the dead men are all former Nazis living in Ireland with the blessing of the Irish government. They are all also overt warnings to Colonel Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favourite commando and personal friend of the Irish Minister for Justice, Charles Haughey, that he is no longer safe. Albert Ryan, an officer of the Directorate of Intelligence and former member of Britain’s Armed Forces, is seconded to Haughey and charged with finding out who is carrying out these attacks.
So begins Lieutenant Albert Ryan’s investigation, and Stuart Neville’s fourth novel. Along the way we’ll encounter a host of former Nazis and French nationalists, Mossad agents, ex-army mercenaries, and the beautiful Celia Hume, as we watch Albert Ryan make his way carefully through the minefield that lies between duty and morality. Ratlines is, in many ways, a major departure for Stuart Neville. His first standalone novel, it is also the first not set in post-Troubles Belfast. Many of the themes he explores in his first three novels, though – the deep political and religious differences that divide Ireland in two being the most obvious example – are still very much in evidence here, if seen from a much different viewpoint than before.
Ryan is an interesting character – a Protestant from a small Monaghan town, he crossed the border during the Second World War and signed up with the British Army. To many of his countrymen, he is seen as a traitor and lickspittle, and this has repercussions for his family that he could probably never have foreseen; even in 1963, his parents are still dealing with the fallout of that rash decision. Twenty years later, he is a career soldier, albeit now working for the Irish Directorate of Intelligence, so he comes across as something of an innocent, a man very much out of touch with the modern workings of the world. No street-wise, wise-cracking detective here; think mid-Twentieth Century Jack Reacher, and you’re probably not too far off the mark.
Several of the characters – Haughey, Skorzeny – are modelled on real people and Neville’s narrative grows from a single fact – that Skorzeny spent some years living in Ireland with the permission of the Irish government – into a complex, engaging and plausible story in the vein of Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil. As the story progresses, Ryan’s chain of command becomes less clear, and it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of who he is now working for, or what promises he has made. This is a deliberate move on the author’s part, and is backed up by Ryan’s internal struggle between what he is employed to do – in this instance, protect the life of a famous war criminal – and what he feels is right – the expulsion of this man and all his kind from his country, exposing the corruption within the government at the same time. When it becomes apparent that there is also a lot of money at stake, it’s one more element to keeping the reader guessing just what Ryan’s intentions are.
At the heart of the novel is a knot of political tensions that shows a complex, and sometimes schizophrenic, side to Ireland. Tensions between Ireland and America on the eve of the presidential visit; potential tensions between Ireland and the fledgling Israeli state once Mossad discover the country is harbouring Nazi war criminals; the age-old tensions between Ireland and Britain that inevitably result in sectarian bigotry and outright violence. There is an excellent passage early in the novel, as Ryan thinks back to his days as a young boy working in his father’s shop, that shows how dementedly nationalistic the Irish can often be.
Would de Valera…side with Chamberlain? If it came to it, would he ask his fellow Irishmen to fight alongside the British?
Unthinkable, some would say. Old Dev would never sell his people out to the Brits.
But that Hitler, others would say, he’s bad news…
But he’s just a good nationalist, like us, looking out for his own people. Just like Old Dev did, like Pearse and Connolly did in 1916.
As a whole, the novel works very well. The ratlines of the title serve to tie several different stories together, and make sense of the many different groups trying to get their hands on Otto Skorzeny. It’s a cleverly plotted fiction built upon a solid and well-researched factual base. Part spy novel, part detective story, part examination of Ireland’s role in post-War Europe, Neville also manages to find a nice balance of action to keep the story moving quickly without losing any of its intelligence.
I’ve been a big fan of Stuart Neville since I got my hands on an early copy of his first novel The Twelve (The Ghosts of Belfast in the US). While I enjoyed the second and third parts of what turned out to be a loosely-defined trilogy (you can find my review of his third novel, Stolen Souls, here), neither quite lived up to the early promise of that sensational debut. Ratlines is, without a doubt, a return to form, proving beyond a doubt that Neville is more than a one-trick pony. His best novel since The Twelve, Ratlines takes Neville out of the post-Troubles niche and deals with subject matter that should open his work to a much wider audience than would previously have been interested. If you haven’t yet tried this young man’s work, Ratlines is an excellent place to start.
|WHERE I LEFT MY SOUL
Translated by Geoffrey Strachan
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Released: 10th October 2012
I am always slightly surprised when I come across a book that deals with a period of history of which I have been woefully ignorant. Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul, the French author’s first novel translated into English, presents just such a period, dealing with the decades following the end of the Second World War during which the French Empire appears to have completely collapsed, leaving an entire generation of young men feeling used and betrayed by their government.
One such man, André Degorce, stands at the centre of this short, bleak novel. Having joined the French Resistance at the age of 19, halfway through 1944, he finds himself captured by the Germans. In May 1945, he leaves the camp at Buchenwald weighing five and a half stone. Almost exactly nine years later, he leaves a re-education camp in Vietnam, having been captured by the Viet Minh. Now, 1957, Capitaine Degorce is at war again, this time in the Northern African climes of Algeria, and this time the shoe is on the other foot.
Degorce, now a torturer, has been tasked with capturing Tahar, one of the commanders of the National Liberation Army. Lieutenant Horace Andreani, a man with whom he was captured in Vietnam, has joined him once again in Algeria, seemingly enjoying his new role much more than the Capitaine. When Tahar is captured, Degorce senses a kinship and during the short period when Tahar is his prisoner, the Algerian also becomes a confessor. When Tahar is transferred to Andreani’s care, Degorce is lost, unable to comprehend what he has become.
The bulk of the story takes place over the course of three days at the end of March 1957. These third-person narratives from the point of view of Degorce are interspersed with a first-person rant in the voice of a much older Lieutenant Andreani, a stream of bile and invective aimed at Degorce, a man once respected, even loved, now reviled and considered a traitor. What slowly unfolds as the story progresses, are the portraits of two men broken in very different ways by the same circumstances. On the one hand, Degorce, a man filled with remorse, increasingly questioning the tactics he uses on a daily basis, unable to comprehend why he is slowly becoming the same as his captors in Buchenwald and Vietnam; on the other, Andreani, a man willing to do anything in the name of his country, remorseless and happy, the perfect tool.
Ferrari states in his preface, that it’s not about the war, nor the politics:
“…it was not French wounds, nor even history, that interested me; I was only interested in the trajectory these officers followed, as a paradigm of the way in which man, as he plunges into his own inner darkness, loses his soul.”
In this, at least, he succeeds. We meet André Degorce as his world is about to collapse around him. Through a series of flashbacks we discover how he has arrived at this point, and can infer certain things about the choices he has made. The capture of Tahar, and the similarities Degorce sees between himself and his captive, serve to push him over the edge, and we witness a man whose world is falling apart around him: his remote and crumbling relationship with his family, who have no idea to what lengths he has gone in the service of his country; and his position within the army, a job that suddenly seems irrelevant to him, his unquestioning loyalty now at an end, a source of embarrassment and shame.
“He was no longer even trying to shake off the grip of humiliation. He was simply waiting for the whole charade to be at an end. It occurred to him that Jeanne-Marie would see his picture in the papers next morning and would in all probability be proud of him. If she were to learn one day what he was really doing here she would be unable either to believe it or to understand it. And she would be right: in spite of all the logic in the world, it was at bottom impossible to understand and it was better for his wife to remain in permanent ignorance.”
In parallel with this, we also witness the descent of Horace Andreani into the same pit. It is a descent on a much different trajectory, taking over forty years to complete, and it is driven by the Lieutenant’s hatred of his one-time Capitaine.
The narrative is at times dense and slow-moving, particularly in the Andreani sections, where sentences span half a page, and paragraph breaks are few and far between. Despite the daunting appearance, Andreani’s voice is engaging enough, and what he has to say interesting enough, to allow the reader to make short work of these sections. The Degorce sections are more conventional, and give us a more detailed look at the soldiers’ time in Algeria, and the work they do: torture both physical and psychological in the name of dismantling a terrorist network that existed long before such a thing was considered the norm. Ferrari’s writing is beautiful, his compact novel giving us at once a shapshot of a specific time and location, but also a timeless scenario that could well be playing out in a handful of countries right now. The war, the politics, as was Ferrari’s intention, are secondary to the main story: a look at two men’s descent into hell, and the broken husks that remain.
Where I Left My Soul is a short, powerful tale that presents a look at the human soul in all its darkness. Behind that beautiful Monica Reyes cover is an equally beautiful tale that shows Jérôme Ferrari’s understanding of the dark side of humanity. It’s a quick read, but one that will remain with the reader for a long time afterwards, a consequence of strong characters and engaging storyline. In a year already bursting with wonderful reads, Where I Left My Soul still manages to stand out.
|THE CHURCH OF SAINTS CYRIL AND METHODIUS
As featured in: HHhH by Laurent Binet
Date of visit: 5th September 2012
Price of Adult Admission: Kč75 (≅£2.50)
When I started Reader Dad early in 2011, the plan was to stick to the book reviews and leave it at that. Now, a handful of interviews and a guest post later, I’ve decided to try something a little bit different, something that will, if it proves popular, be a very infrequent feature on the blog: the Travelogue.
Frequent visitors to the blog will surely know by now that I am an avid reader. I am that person who writes “reading” into the space on a form that asks about hobbies or pastimes. I also love to travel, and quite often combine the two: I’ll read fiction set in my destination in the hope of familiarising myself with a new city, or I’ll make sure I schedule in visits to landmarks I have read about as part of my trip. In this way, I have seen things like the standpipe and statue of Paul Bunyan in Bangor, Maine, which serve as inspiration for the landmarks in Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, as seen in his novel, It; the police station in Ystad, from where Kurt Wallander runs his investigations; the statue that stands in the centre of the small town of Banbridge, Northern Ireland, which commemorates Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who plays a central role in Dan Simmons’ The Terror.
As a student of the Holocaust, I also make it a point to visit related sites when I’m in their vicinity: Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe both evoke the same sense of terrible history and horrific awe, while the Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest) and the bunker complex at Berchtesgaden show things from a completely different perspective, no less frightening for it.
Nestled in the heart of the beautiful city of Prague stands a little gem that combines these two travel rituals: a location with indirect connection to the Holocaust, and one that plays a central role in what is still the best book I have read this year. If I’ve done things right, clicking on the pictures below should show you a larger version. Unless otherwise stated, the pictures are my own, taken with a cheap compact digital camera (FujiFilm FinePix AV220) on the default settings; the quality is variable, but in my defence, we were on our way to the zoo, so I shot quickly and recorded what I could.
Resslova is a fairly short, but seemingly quite busy street in the New Town section of Prague. At its eastern end, it meets Charles Square and from there runs westwards downhill towards Jiráskův Bridge and the famous Dancing House. Partway down the street on the right-hand side stands the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the building that now houses the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror.
From the east, the building appears out of nowhere – the front entrance of the church is on the westernmost corner, so the tourist has almost passed the building before realising what it is. According to J.M. Lau’s Prague: Then and Now, a beautiful coffee table book that shows how the city has changed during the relatively brief lifetime of the photograph, the church was built sometime between 1730 and 1740 and served as a home – complete with a 112-tomb crypt – for retired Catholic priests. One-time military barracks (1783) and centre for Czech technology (1869), the building was leased to the Orthodox Church in 1933.
Sheltered in a west-facing corner – the first indication to the west-bound tourist that they have reached their destination – is a shrine dedicated to the brave men whose lives ended inside on 18th June 1942.
The shrine centres around a small window, the surrounding stonework bearing the scars of the Nazi bullets that peppered it sixty years ago. Above the window, a plaque to the lost heroes.
Thinking I had seen all I was likely to see, I was very pleased to discover that the crypt is now the location of the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and that it was open for business. With reluctant partner and three-year-old in tow, I headed inside.
The entrance hallway is a large square room, a reception desk to the right at the bottom of the steps, two walls covered in information boards and glass cabinets containing exhibits (both facsimiles and real objects). The third wall bears a large glass cabinet filled with books. In the wall directly opposite the entrance is a door, a wrought-iron-and-yellow-glass affair that doesn’t look out of place in a church, and that presumably didn’t exist in June 1942.
The information boards recount the story that Binet tells us in his own unique way in HHhH: the effect of the war on Czechoslovakia, the capitulation to the Führer, and the beginnings of Operation Anthropoid, all illustrated by photographs and facsimile documents. On display, amongst other items, is the uniform worn by the Czechoslovak Army in Great Britain; a racial profiling kit; a sample of Kubiš’s bomb, and that cursed Sten Mk II that made life so difficult.
There is also plenty of documentary evidence: Gabčik and Kubiš’s training forms; photos of Heydrich’s Mercedes showing the damage caused by the bomb and, on one particularly harrowing board, photographs of Lidiče, one of two towns chosen by Hitler to bear the brunt of his wrath for the death of his senior officer.
Then, tentatively, through the door. I was fortunate to have the crypt to myself for the duration of my visit. The place is soaked in atmosphere, and the silence certainly helps. It’s a well-lit space, though presumably that wasn’t the case in 1942, probably three times as long as it is wide, and probably not much more than ten or twelve feet wide at its widest point. I completely failed to snap a picture of the place in its entirety, but hopefully the other pictures will help you piece it together.
Along the left-hand wall, three alcoves filled with the narrow entrances of tombs, almost like a morgue with all the doors torn off. Almost directly overhead, the narrow trapdoor through which the assassins entered the crypt and later, through which the Nazis threw gas grenades, and the traitor Karel Čurda pleaded with the men to surrender. At the far end of the long narrow space, a staircase leading up; it was this staircase that gave the Nazis their way in, once they found the entrance hidden behind a tombstone. On the right-hand wall, three more alcoves, the two closest to the staircase filled with tombs. The last alcove, that directly to the visitor’s right when he enters the crypt, houses the room’s only source of natural light: the other side of that small window that forms the centre of the shrine on Resslova.
Beneath the window is the beginnings of a hole, the work of desperate men searching for any means of escape. With gas grenades being tossed down their only real means of escape, and with the fire department pouring water through that small window overhead in an attempt to flood the crypt, these seven brave men sought to escape into the city’s sewer system. This hole is now home to a second shrine: notes from around the world praising the bravery of these men, and thanking them for their service, share space with small gifts, flowers, coins, little tokens of the world’s appreciation. It’s a touching and humbling sight, and I’m not afraid to admit that it brought a lump to my throat and a stinging sensation to my eyes.
This is the room where four of these men took their own lives (the other three died in a hail of bullets in the church upstairs), and it is, quite frankly, one of the most awe-inspiring places I have ever had the privilege to stand. There are seven bronze busts along both sides of the narrow corridor depicting these brave men, as well as a final, shocking information board which shows pictures of the crypt in the aftermath of the invasion and pictures of the seven, the stark contrast between posed headshots and pictures of the bodies in situ.
Back outside in the entrance hall, stored in the glass-fronted bookcase, a multitude of books about Heydrich and Operation Antropoid. Proudly displayed amidst them, a handful of copies of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, in various languages.
While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – most people visit Prague for the fun times and its external beauty, and few wish to be brought down, even briefly, by something of this magnitude – the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius is well worth the visit for anyone who has read HHhH, or anyone who is at all interested in this period in European history. Today it stands as a monument to the bravery and sacrifice of a few men for the greater good – the elimination of the architect of the Final Solution.
It’s an atmospheric venue, but it is well-preserved and gives the visitor a good sense of what the members of Anthropoid endured during their fatal stay. Fans of the book are unlikely to take away anything new from the information boards, though the photographs put much of Binet’s sometimes light-hearted narrative into some sort of context. It’s the crypt itself that proves the biggest draw, but be warned: it’s an emotional journey, and one that will stay with you long after you emerge once more into the sunshine.
Translated by Sam Taylor
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)
Released: 3rd May 2012
Laurent Binet’s debut novel, the oddly-named HHhH, appealed to me on two different levels: first of all, as an avid consumer of any and all information concerning the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and secondly, as a lover of the beautiful city of Prague. Unsure what to expect when I started to read this odd, but strangely engaging novel, I was not to be disappointed on either level.
HHhH ostensibly tells the story of the May 1942 assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “most dangerous man in the Third Reich”, and of the consequences that followed. It is also Laurent Binet’s own story, the story of a man with a tale to tell and no idea how best to tell it. Amongst chapters detailing the rise of the Blond Beast, or of the convoluted journey that ultimately brought Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš to the north of Prague on the morning of May 27th 1942, we find chapters detailing the author’s research, his wishes for the novel, his neurotic analyses of certain phrases or paragraphs and whether they should remain in the final draft:
I have no evidence that Gabčík and Kubiš’s clothes were provided by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive). In fact, it’s more likely that this was dealt with by Moravec’s Czech services. So there’s no reason why the NCO who looks after them should be British. Oh, what a pain…
Early in the book, Binet sets out his stall, and defines the parameters of this extraordinary novel: he will stick to the facts, with no embellishments. Where dialogue is required, it will be based on documentary evidence of some description, or it will serve to illustrate a point, and be marked as an invention of the author. What he ultimately produces is littered with invention and coloured by the personal opinions of a man who has been living with the story since childhood.
Hácha signs. “I have sacrificed the state in order to save the nation,” he believes. The imbecile. It’s as if Chamberlain’s stupidity was contagious…
If not for the polished prose and level of detail included on the central storyline, this could almost be an annotated early draft, littered with the author’s musings, notes and questions for further research. But that’s doing this wonderful novel an injustice, because it is a finely polished work, exquisitely researched and unbelievably tense. Binet references earlier histories, and fictional attempts at chronicling this period of history, or this group of monsters, including two of my own personal favourites – Robert Harris’ excellent alternative history of the Reich, Fatherland, and the wonderful BBC dramatisation of the Wannsee conference, Conspiracy, with Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci in the key roles of Heydrich and his own right-hand man, Eichmann – revealing an interest that verges on obsession.
Despite the interruptive style, HHhH builds in intensity as history pulls us inexorably towards the morning of May 27th 1942. The central storyline culminates in the 17-page Chapter 222 (the book is barely over 300 pages long, which should give you some idea of the average chapter length, and the relative importance of this one) and again in the 14-page 250th chapter, both of which seem designed expressly to take the reader’s breath away and keep them glued to the page. They succeed. The first details the assassination attempt itself and, from multiple viewpoints, the stories of each of the protagonists as they once again diverge from this nexus – Gabčík and Kubiš as they flee for their lives; Heydrich as he collapses and is rushed to hospital. The second details the siege of the church where Gabčík and Kubiš have holed up, waiting for the opportunity to flee the country.
Throughout, there is a sense of immediacy; the story is told in the present tense, in short, sharp bursts that would be the envy of any thriller writer. The author is a constant presence, and his personality and sense of humour infect the story, offering brief glimpses of light in otherwise dark places. Take, for instance, this offhand remark as the SS begin clearing the village of Lidice, a village removed completely from the face of the Earth on the orders of Hitler as punishment for the assassination of Heydrich:
Then the Germans begin to do what will soon become their favourite occupation: they divide the group in two. Women and children are locked up in the school, while the men are led to a farmhouse and crammed into the cellar.
HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completely other. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.
Otto de Kat
Translated by Ina Rilke
Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
A brief flick through previous entries in this blog will show the reader that I have something of a fascination with the events of the Second World War. Not so much the war itself, but the individual stories that make up the fabric of time during which those terrible events occurred. Dutch writer Otto de Kat’s latest novel, Julia, is one such story, a surprising and heart-breaking vignette that chronicles Hitler’s rise to power through the eyes of a young, love-struck Dutchman.
Julia opens in the early 1980s. Chris Dudok, a man in his early seventies, is found dead on the floor of his study, apparently having taken an overdose along with his bowl of porridge. On his desk is a newspaper, an old German paper, dated 2 April 1942. On the front page, a list of names, circled in red. From there, we are taken back to Lübeck, February 1938, where a much younger Chris Dudok is working in a factory, sent to Germany by his father to gain some experience before he takes control of the family’s own manufacturing business. While in Lübeck, Chris meets and falls in love with Julia Bender, a young woman outspoken against the growing Nazi presence. As events culminate in Kristallnacht, in November of the same year, Chris flees back to the Netherlands, abandoning Julia at her command. It is a decision that will overshadow the rest of his life, and which will leave him filled with regret.
De Kat tells his tale in a series of flashbacks, the story coming together in three distinct time periods. Here is Chris in his seventies, on the night before he takes his own life, reminiscent and regretful. Here is the same man in his early twenties, full of life and love, in a country that is slowly succumbing to the grip of dictatorship, the world on the verge of war. And then there is Chris in the in-between years, trapped in a loveless marriage, possessing unwanted responsibility following the sudden death of his father and the passing of the reins to him. Behind everything lies the shadow of Julia, a young woman that we – and Chris, seemingly – know very little about:
Those moments in her company…Years hence it would be those moments, that time, that would count as the happiest he had known. Taken all together, what did they add up to? A few days, a fortnight?
We see Dudok’s life as a series of snapshots, as if we are seeing pages from the diary that he left in the car on his final night. De Kat shows us Germany in 1938 through the eyes of an outsider. Hitler is never mentioned by name, but his presence is felt in those pre-war scenes, and he is referred to as “the radio man” throughout. Chris watches his rise with the cynical and detached eye of the foreigner, unable to see what others see in him, why his ideas are finding footholds in the minds of the local population:
The radio man was a disaster, worse than Chris had initially believed. As for the never-ending palavers in Holland, the stultifying compromises, the wavering, all that was better than falling for the great lie of the national soul, the fixation on a mythical perception of blood and soil, the idiocy of one group being held superior to another. It was nauseating, loathsome, and also frightening.
There is an immediate rapport with Julia, an objector, the sister of a traitor to the cause, who becomes a shady underground figure and sends Chris away, ostensibly to keep both of them safe. There is an interesting juxtaposition of these two main characters – they share similar views, reached through different thought processes, yet one, in the eyes of the law, is a traitor, and the other not.
In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.
|COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY
Translated by Damion Searls (www.damionsearls.com)
Hesperus Press (www.hesperuspress.com)
Hesperus Press are new to me. For a while now, it seems, they have been publishing long overlooked foreign fiction that has never before been translated to English, or hasn’t been available for a long time. Hans Keilson, still alive according to what I can find out about him online, at the goodly age of 101, was forced to flee from Germany to the Netherlands during WWII. He’s Jewish, which shows this short novel in a somewhat different light. Comedy in a Minor Key was originally written in 1947.
As the story opens, we find ourselves in the home of young Dutch couple Wim and Marie as a doctor examines the man who is lying dead in their guest room bed. Outside, the sounds of planes and distant explosions as allied forces make their way across the English Channel and Holland, striking out for Berlin. It is some undefined point during the Second World War. The dead man is Nico, a Jew who the couple has been hiding for the past year. As the story progresses, we get to meet Nico as he arrives, and at various points throughout his year-long stay with the couple, intertwined with the story of how Wim, Marie and the doctor plan to resolve the predicament in which they now find themselves.
By modern standards, this is quite a short novel – around 100 pages, all in, which is the perfect length for Keilson to tell the story he wishes to tell without any unnecessary padding. The characters come immediately to life (although, admittedly, it took me several chapters to come to terms with the fact that the couple at the centre of the story are in their late thirties, rather than their mid-fifties, which may be more a sign of the times than anything else), and we find ourselves immediately thrust into the centre of things. The tone of the novel, surprisingly given its subject matter, is almost light-hearted, and flashbacks give us a picture of three people who are making the best of a bad situation. Nico has his dark moments, his periods of hating Wim and Marie for their relative freedom, but he’s a realist, and knows that they are the only reason he is still alive. Meanwhile, the young couple are coming to terms with the fact that they have a stranger living upstairs, a man who, if he were found out, could be the nail in their own coffins.
It is surprising, then, that the circle of confidence grows, and more people become aware of their situation. It’s a clear indication that this is a simple tale of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances: Wim and Marie aren’t part of any underground resistance movement, secret warriors out to subvert the tyrannical regime under which they’re forced to live; they are an ordinary couple, doing their best to help out a fellow human in dire straits because they have the means to do so.
Towards the end, the story takes a darker turn and we follow Wim and Marie, however briefly, into hell. But overall, it’s an upbeat story and everyone, the reader included, comes away feeling a little better about the world. Imagine the Diary of Anne Frank as told to Joseph Heller – there are moments of pure farce here, but also moments that remind us exactly what’s going on, and exactly what’s at stake.
A surprisingly uplifting read. Keilson gives us a real testament to man’s humanity to man in the face of so much inhumanity: this is not a true story, but it’s probably not far from the truth for many people throughout Europe in those dark days. It’s a novel that is likely to remain with me for some time to come, and one I will revisit in the future. Well done to Hesperus Press for making it available to an English-speaking audience.