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Holocaust

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne

Boy-in-Striped-Pyjamas-Cover THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (www.oliverjeffers.com)

Doubleday (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£14.99

Bruno is nine years old when his father’s job forces the family to pack up their beautiful Berlin home and move to the desolate Polish countryside. This is Out-With, a cold and unpleasant place where neither Bruno nor his sister want to stay, both missing their friends and the hustle and bustle of central Berlin. There is a window in Bruno’s bedroom, and it overlooks the tall barbed-wire fence that stretches for miles in either direction at the end of their garden. From the window, Bruno can see that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are living on the other side of the barbed wire fence, all of them dressed in the same striped pyjamas and cloth caps. It strikes Bruno as unfair, so many people over on the other side of the fence while he is on this side, alone but for his sister (a Hopeless Case), until the day he decides to go for a walk, and makes a friend in Shmuel, a boy from the other side.

John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was an instant classic when it was first published in 2006. Ten years on, and it is still as powerful and touching as it ever was. In it, we meet Bruno, and watch events unfold through his young, naïve eyes. Bruno is the son of the Commandant of the Auschwitz (Out-With) concentration camp, and finds himself uprooted from his happy life in Berlin (where he spends his days with his three best friends for life) and transplanted to a “horrible” new home in the middle of nowhere.

While it is obvious to the reader, with the benefit of 70 years of hindsight, what is going on, Bruno’s innocence, and the immediacy of what he finds himself in the middle of, give us a fresh perspective on a well-known story. Terrible things are happening here, but Bruno’s young and idealistic mind refuses to let him consider this, seeing the barbed-wire fence not as an enclosure, but simply as a wall preventing him from making friends with the hundreds of children who obviously live on the other side of it. And in the way of all small boys, Bruno cannot comprehend a scenario in which his father is evil, even if he is more than a little distant. To the reader, of course, his father’s attitude – not to mention his acceptance of the position – show his true colours.

‘No, not them,’ said Bruno. ‘The people I see from my window. In the huts, in the distance. They’re all dressed the same.’

‘Ah, those people,’ said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. ‘Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno.’

When Bruno meets Shmuel, a young boy on the other side of the fence, his opinion of Out-With begins to change, but not as we might expect. Shmuel shares Bruno’s birthday, and is the son of a Polish watchmaker. Nothing but circumstance – the vagaries of their parents’ religions – separates the fates of these two boys, putting one outside the fence – well-fed and cared for – and the other inside – starving, overworked and, though neither of the boys can possibly understanding, facing almost-certain death. Bruno begins to enjoy his time here, and his long talks with Shmuel, seeming to wilfully ignore the horror of Shmuel’s circumstances – rebuffing tales of horror inside the camp with tales of his own misfortune, like the fact that they have left a five-storey house in the middle of Berlin to live in a three-storey house in a far-away place.

While Bruno and Shmuel form the heart of the story, Boyne populates the narrative with all manner of interesting characters, many of whom seem strange to the young boy who acts as our guide. From aloof Father and unhappy Mother, to Kurt, the young soldier with an evil temper, a questionable background and a soft spot for Bruno’s sister and mother, and Pavel, the vegetable-cutter and waiter who claims to have been a doctor in a former life, all of these characters are instantly recognisable stereotypes who nevertheless pop off the page, fully-formed and full of life. Even the (aptly-misheard) Fury and his beautiful blonde companion seem like interesting people in the eyes of Bruno.

For the book’s tenth anniversary, Doubleday have produced a beautifully-packaged “Deluxe Illustrated Edition”, with art by the wonderful Oliver Jeffers. As a fan of Jeffers’ work (one of the many joyful discoveries I have made in fatherhood), he seemed like a strange choice to illustrate such a dark and ultimately horrific novel. But having re-read the book and admired Jeffers’ artwork, I’m now convinced that he was the right – perhaps the only – choice. His simplistic drawings, filled with childlike beauty, match the childlike narrative perfectly, though often showing us proceedings from a more adult, and sometimes very shocking, perspective.

From its light-hearted opening line to its inevitable and horrific end, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a gripping and essential take on one of humanity’s darkest moments. Boyne pulls no punches, despite the child’s-eye view that he uses to tell much of the story, and the reader comes away from the experience a changed – and extremely damp-eyed – person. While it is ostensibly a book aimed at children (I can’t wait until my own child is old enough to read it with me), this is a book that deserves to be read by everyone, an important story that – especially in these dark times where many seem to be forgetting the lessons of the past – is perfectly-pitched to give our children an early glimpse of the horrors inflicted on the world by Nazi Germany. A tough read (especially when you know what’s coming), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, and this tenth anniversary edition marks both John Boyne and Oliver Jeffers as national treasures, men in whose hands the education and edification of our children are safe. If you haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I would urge you to do so. If you have, don’t you think it’s about time for a revisit?

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne

THE  BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN - John Boyne THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£12.99

Although Pierrot Fischer’s father didn’t die in the Great War, his mother Émilie always maintained it was the war that killed him.

It is 1936 and seven-year-old Pierrot Fischer lives in Paris with his French mother, his German father having drunk himself into an early grave several years before. His best friend is Anshel Bronstein, a deaf Jewish child who lives on the ground floor of his apartment building. When Pierrot’s mother dies, his father’s sister takes him in, and brings him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is a housekeeper, and the house where she works is perched atop a mountain on the German-Austrian border, close to the small town of Berchtesgaden; this is the Berghof, and the master of the house is none other than the man who will soon become Führer of the Third Reich. Taken under Hitler’s wing, Pierrot soon rediscovers his German heritage, but finds that his newfound power comes at terrible cost.

Almost ten years after the phenomenal The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne returns to the subject of World War II as seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy. While both the title and cover of this latest story are both very reminiscent of that earlier volume, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a very different beast, though one that, ultimately, examines the same core question – “nature or nurture?” – through a very different lens.

We see the world through the young and innocent eyes of Pierrot, though the third-person narrative allows the narrator to impart secrets to the reader that might otherwise be beyond the youngster’s comprehension. Precocious and likeable, we feel a blow at the death of his mother, and are glad when he finds a place at a small family-run orphanage where we get the sense that he will be well looked after. When his aunt brings him to live with her, we watch and understand Pierrot’s apprehension while at the same time feeling joy that he still has family who want to do their best by him. It is a joy that is short-lived, when we discover exactly where he is going.

For the most part, Boyne paints a very human picture of Hitler, a man with much on his mind for whom this young boy is excellent company. There are moments when the evil peeks out from under the mask, and even the most jaded reader will feel a chill as we see the monster within. As Pierrot – now Pieter – grows closer to Hitler, his relationship with his aunt, and with the house’s other servants grows ever more distant. We watch as Pierrot changes – first forgetting his Parisian roots and his friendship with Anshel, then alienating himself from what few friends he has been able to make at the school in Berchtesgaden, and from the people with whom he shares the house, even when the master is not in residence – and the change becomes most marked when Hitler presents him with a gift almost a year after he first arrives: his own Hitler Youth uniform, which bestows upon him a sense of belonging, and of power, that has long been missing from his life. There comes a point in the novel, a moment of shocking betrayal, where we witness the boy’s transformation into early manhood:

It was Pierrot who climbed out of bed that morning, but it was Pieter who returned to it now before falling soundly asleep.

As we have come to expect from the works of John Boyne, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is beautifully-written and well-researched. His evocation of the Berghof is enough to transport the reader to the Obersalzburg, and his characters are as full of life as any he has created. While it lacks the emotional kick in the gut that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas provides, it is no less intense an experience. (Regular readers will be pleased with the brief crossover between the two books, as Pierrot and Bruno come face-to-face at Mannheim train station.) It’s an engaging – and all-too-short – look at Pierrot’s journey to the very brink of evil, but it is also, at least indirectly, a very frightening examination of Hitler’s fabled charisma, and goes some way towards trying to explain how so many people might have been talked into doing so many bad things in the name of furthering the Reich, not least the once – and potential future – King of England who turns up with Mrs Wallis Simpson on his arm for a weekend retreat with the Führer. What is perhaps most frightening about the experience is how Boyne plays on our own feelings about this man, presenting him in a different light that contradicts everything we think we know.

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

JAKOB’S COLOURS by Lindsay Hawdon

JakobsColours JAKOB’S COLOURS

Lindsay Hawdon (lhawdon.co.uk)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£14.99

Jakob is barely eight-years old, and he is running for his life, searching for shelter in a world that has turned against him. It is 1944, and Jakob is a half-gypsy, the oldest child of a Romany father and an English mother, living in German-occupied Europe. High on Hitler’s list of undesirables, Jakob’s gypsy heritage has condemned him to a less-than-human existence that can only end in one way if he stays where he is. So, he must reach Switzerland before he is found, but what chance does an eight-year-old child have against the might of the German army?

Just when you thought you knew about all the atrocities carried out during the Second World War, something else gets unearthed, or someone comes along to examine something in more detail, and uncovers fresh horror and pain. Based on the Romany Holocaust, Lindsay Hawdon’s novel is all the more intense for showing the horror through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy whose survival is, by no means, guaranteed.

Concentrating on the story of Jakob as he tries to evade capture, Hawdon uses flashbacks to supplement this young boy’s story, to show us where he came from, in every sense of the phrase. Flashbacks to the previous year show us Jakob on the run with his mother, brother and sister, as they try to find Jakob’s father, from whom they were separated during a pogrom on the town in which they had settled. During other flashbacks, we find the family all together though, horrifically, they’re wedged into railway cattle cars on their way to God knows what fate. Others show us the childhood of Jakob’s mother, the madness that drove her to the asylum where she met and fell in love with Jakob’s father, a man obsessed with collecting colours, a passion that he passed on to his eldest son.

In the main narrative, Jakob finds himself being helped by an old man named Marcus. Marcus has secret compartments under his stairs that he uses to hide people from the Nazis. He takes Jakob to his home and hides him in the smallest of these compartments, where he lives for months, his only companionship the two Jews in the neighbouring cubbies, and his daily trip outside to get fed and use the toilet. As the story progresses, a plan is hatched, and Jakob begins to receive more food to strengthen him for a run to the Swiss border. In his innocence, much of what is happening passes over Jakob’s head, though there are clues that point the reader to a more realistic conclusion.

There is much beauty between the covers of this stunning novel: the relationship between Jakob and his mother; the stories she tells; and the love that shines from the page not only between Jakob and his family members, but also between Jakob and the man who will become his saviour, Marcus. This beauty is balanced by moments of sheer horror that will leave the reader in tears – what lies at the end of that train journey; Jakob’s realisation as he leaves his cupboard under Marcus’ stairs for the last time. These and other scenes are designed to rip the heart from your chest and wring it dry; the contrast with the beauty, with the wonderful colours that infuse the whole story, makes the horror all the more stark.

Hawdon’s characterisation is masterful, to say the least. In a few short words, she can create a living, breathing human being out of thin air: Jakob and his family; the two men in the cupboards next to Jakob, each with their own stories to tell, their own pain-filled routes to these small spaces of solace and shelter; the German soldier who haunts Jakob’s dreams, one of the most evil characters you’re likely to encounter in fiction, who remains unnamed, and whose conscience makes his violence even more terrifying.

As well as Jakob’s story, this is the story of the Romany people, and the trials they faced during Hitler’s reign. As we learn about the history of Jakob’s family, it becomes clear that little has changed for the gypsy people in the thirty years or so that the novel spans: the pogroms and discrimination are nothing new, though the final outcome may have changed. What Thomas Keneally did for the Jews in Schindler’s Ark, so Lindsay Hawdon does for the Romany in Jakob’s Colours. There are obvious parallels between the two works, but what makes them so similar is the simplicity of their stories, the horror they evoke, and the sympathy that the author has for their subject. Schindler’s Ark won Keneally the Booker Prize; I’ll be very surprised if Jakob’s Colours doesn’t receive similar accolades in the coming year.

Beautiful and horrific, Jakob’s Colours is an intense and gripping examination of one person’s experiences during the Second World War, written in a way that examines how an entire race of people suffered during that war. Lindsay Hawdon’s writing is beautiful, her characterisation pitch perfect, her ability to terrify and sicken eclipsed only by her ability to make us smile, to appeal to our maternal or paternal instincts for this small boy on his own. Like any book whose subject is genocide, it is difficult to come away from Jakob’s Colours feeling that you’ve enjoyed yourself, but it is an important book, a story that is still very relevant seventy years after its setting; this is a book that demands an audience and I can guarantee that you will not come away disappointed.

A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar

A MAN LIES DREAMING - Lavie Tidhar A MAN LIES DREAMING

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£18.99

In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.

National Socialism is routed at the 1933 elections by Communism, and its leadership exiled from Germany. Sentenced to a concentration camp, Adolf Hitler escapes and makes his way to London where, under his old nickname, Wolf, he sets up as a private detective. When a beautiful Jewish woman steps into his office in early November 1939 to hire him to find her missing sister, Wolf has no idea where the case will take him, except that he should have listened to his first instinct and thrown her out on the street. As his investigation progresses, Wolf finds himself on the wrong side of all the wrong people: the Metropolitan Police; all of the men and women who once formed the upper echelons of the Nazi Party; Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; and a mysterious man who is killing the prostitutes who congregate outside Wolf’s office, and framing the detective for their murders.

Most importantly, for the reader at least, is the fact that none of this is real; it is all the lucid fabrication of Shomer, a man who once wrote shund – Yiddish pulp fiction – for a living, and who now uses it as a form of escape from his current location: hell on Earth. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In what is perhaps the most original take on the Holocaust novel to date, Lavie Tidhar presents the events as a hard-boiled detective novel which at first glance appears to be set in an alternate timeline. As the novel progresses we discover that it is actually a fiction, a story within the story, the dreams and daydreams of an Auschwitz inmate named Shomer. The central story follows Wolf as he accepts a job from Isabella Rubinstein, a Jew, who wants him to use his connections to find her sister who went missing while trying to escape from Germany. From the outset, it is clear that the aim of the story is to belittle and humiliate Wolf, the reasons becoming more obvious as we learn of the story’s origins. During his investigation, Wolf encounters old colleagues – Hess, Goebbels, Klaus Barbie – and discovers that they all appear to have adapted to this brave new world better than he has himself. Coupled with the success – and imminent election as Prime Minister – of Oswald Mosley, a wannabe in Wolf’s eyes

To see Mosley, that clown, with such power! Even the man’s words were second-hand.

, it becomes obvious just how far Wolf has fallen since the heights of the Nuremberg rallies.

Interspersed with this central narrative, we catch brief glimpses of Shomer, the eponymous dreamer, as he dreams his way through his time in Auschwitz, talking to the ghost of his dead friend Yenkl when he is not reinventing the man at the root of his suffering as the hero of a pulpy detective story. We get brief flashes of his arrival on the train, the separation from his family, hard labour digging graves and a brief stay in the camp’s infirmary, where he crosses paths with fellow authors Primo Levi and Ka-Tzetnik. It is, as you might expect given the subject matter, a harrowing look at life in Auschwitz made no less powerful by the brevity of our visits. Shomer, like those around him, is little more than the blue-tattooed number on his arm, and the stories he invents are the only relief he finds from the daily horrors. The novel’s final line is heartbreakingly beautiful, an excellent summation of what is an extraordinary novel.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a brave novel for a man whose life has been shaped by the very events he is describing

The majority of my family, on both sides, died in [Auschwitz]

Tidhar explains in his historical note at the end). A far cry from the outright satire of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, A Man Lies Dreaming examines the dictator in a completely different way. The first-person excerpts from Wolf’s diary give us some insight into the character of the man, while filtering much of the narrative through the Chandler-esque voice. Despite the odd moment where Wolf comes across as a kind of Basil Fawlty impersonator (

He bashed the receiver against the phone box, over and over, splintering the casing, wantonly destroying the property of His Majesty’s General Post Office.

), he elicits a surprising feeling of empathy from the reader, despite what we know. Like Chandler’s well-loved Marlowe, Wolf does not come out of this case well, one beating following quickly on the heels of the one before, ritual humiliation, an impromptu circumcision, so that it’s a wonder that the man makes it to the end of the story in one piece.

This sort of alternative history is not new ground for Lavie Tidhar, who won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for his alternate take on Osama. Brilliantly capturing the mood of a pre-war (war still looms very much on the horizon, though delayed by Hitler’s Fall) Britain while mixing it with the modern-day xenophobia that seems to be sweeping the country, spurred on by the likes of UKIP (some of whose slogans Tidhar uses to provide voice to Mosley’s supporters). The author’s deft touch sees Wolf, whose anti-semitic views survive his exile, become the object of racial hatred, rather than its purveyor, a state of affairs that is likely to have brought Shomer no small measure of happiness.

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes

LOOK WHOS BACK - Timur Vermes LOOK WHO’S BACK

Timur Vermes

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£15.00

Adolf Hitler opens his eyes to find himself lying in the middle of a piece of waste ground in Berlin. The last few days – his final days in the Bunker – are a blur and it doesn’t take long for Hitler to realise that it is no longer April 1945, but the end of August 2011. Assumed to be a particularly good imitator who refuses to break character, Hitler gets a slot on a popular comedian’s show and his rants soon go viral on the Internet. It isn’t long before Hitler is more popular than he ever was at the height of his power, and he begins to plan, once more, for Germany’s future.

Timur Vermes’ highly satirical novel, Look Who’s Back, puts us firmly in the head of Adolf Hitler as he awakens in the 21st Century, unable to explain his long absence or the fact that he is still fifty-six years old despite almost seventy years having passed. Told in the first person by Hitler himself, we discover our own world afresh through the eyes of a man whose last memory prior to waking up is of his time in the Bunker in late April 1945. Vermes holds a mirror up to the modern world, and the reflection we see is far from flattering, as evidenced, for example, by this beautifully-written rant about the state of television programmes which, for me, hits the spot perfectly:

Practically deadened, I switch back to the rotund woman. Since my last visit [a matter of moments earlier] her adventure-filled life had been interrupted by a programme of advertisements, the end of which I just caught. Then the narrator insisted on explaining to me for the umpteenth time that this wretched bint had lost all control over her bastard halfwit excuse for a daughter, and all she had managed to accomplish in the last half-hour was to prattle on to a chain-smoking neighbour about throwing the little cretin out. “This entire coterie of hopeless cases belongs in a labour camp,” I declared vociferously to the television set.

What’s most interesting about this incredibly astute look at our modern world is how plausible it is. Not in the time travel/Hitler coming back from the dead aspect, of course, but in the novel’s key messages. Hitler is astounded – as is this reader – by how few people recognise him, most of the youth referring to him as Herr Stromberg. Our "hero", of course, is expecting immediate recognition and respect. Is he not, after all, the Führer of the Third Reich? It’s this lack of recognition, and the instant hit that this madman becomes, despite (or possibly because of) his racist and objectionable rants, that strikes the most fear into the reader. People can’t quite work out whether to take the whole thing as a joke and laugh (he is, after all, on a comedy show), or be offended by his rhetoric. Vermes’ message seems to be crystal clear here: we cannot learn from the past if we have forgotten what happened. While Hitler himself may never come back, someone with the same ideals, the same notion of how the world should be and – let’s face it – the same level of charisma, could easily rise to notoriety (in the good, "loved by the people", sense of the word) in this technologically advanced age where broadcasting is no longer limited to a few thousand people who can afford a wireless, or a television set. We are a gullible lot: if the TV or whichever tabloid newspaper we happen to pick up says it’s true, then it must be true. We’re obsessed with celebrity, and we form cults and shrines to the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most controversial, the most whatever people in the spotlight, and by doing so, we give them the power to pursue their own agenda and, quite literally in some cases, get away with murder.

With his choice of central character, Timur Vermes may well have found himself skating on very thin ice. How do you write Hitler and make him sympathetic enough to carry the reader for almost 400 pages? Somehow, he manages it, and we find ourselves fully engaged from the first page to the last. There is no doubt about it: monster or not, Hitler was a man of considerable charisma, and Vermes captures this side of him perfectly. Amongst the rants and the anti-Semitism (corralled somewhat by the brilliantly effective "the Jews are not a laughing matter"), there are moments of pure beauty that make us, if not forget, then at least put to the back of our minds, the terrible things of which this man has proven himself capable. Witness the fondness he feels for his typist, and the joy he feels when he realises that she and Hotel Reserver Sawatzki have become more than just colleagues.

From the outset, Look Who’s Back is a comedy of errors and misunderstanding, often with flabbergasting results. For example, the final word in the production meeting which sees Hitler secure his slot on Ali Gagmez’s popular show:

"There’s just one thing I want to get straight," Frau Bellini said, suddenly looking at me very seriously.
"What is that?"
"We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter."
"You are absolutely right," I concurred, almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.

These misunderstandings serve to cement Hitler’s position, in his own mind at least, as a man on the rise, heading back in the direction of leadership and the fulfilment of his destiny, while meaning something entirely different to the person on the other end of the conversation. The net effect of this is that the reader is left feeling distinctly uncomfortable: there is more than a remote possibility that Hitler could come back to power because someone has inadvertently handed him the reins, believing him to be a harmless impersonator.

From the simple, eye-catching cover, to the pun-tastic back cover copy ("He’s back…and he’s Führious"), to the often gripping, often hilarious content in between, Look Who’s Back is that rare beast: a stunning piece of fiction that works despite the ridiculous outer premise and despite the fact that we should despise the man in whose head we ultimately find ourselves. Beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch (who also provides a useful glossary at the end for those of us who are unfamiliar with Herr Stromberg, or Martin Bormann, or any of the countless other ”characters” who may be familiar to the book’s original German audience), this is a perfectly-judged skewering of 21st Century society and the values we hold most dear, as seen through the lens of one of the most detested – and detestable – monsters of recent history. Many readers are likely to be surprised with just how much they agree with him, and just how reasonable he seems in this brave new world where Herr Starbuck has a coffee shop on every corner. Look Who’s Back is a masterpiece, and marks Timur Vermes as one to watch. Do not, at any cost, miss this.

THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee

THE UNDERTAKING - Audrey Magee THE UNDERTAKING

Audrey Magee (audreymagee.com)

Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£12.99

In order to temporarily escape the madness of the Eastern Front, German soldier Peter Faber turns to marriage. It is a marriage of convenience, the bride one Katharina Spinell, chosen from a catalogue, a girl he has never met. The benefits are mutual: ten days’ honeymoon leave for him; a war pension for her should he die on the battlefield. In Berlin, the attraction between them is immediate and mutual, and when Peter returns to the front, he leaves more than a memory; Katharina is pregnant and must raise the child alone while Peter moves ever eastwards, fighting a war that is always on the verge of being over.

Audrey Magee’s first novel is a thing of beauty. Split between the ever-shifting Eastern Front, and the relative comfort of Berlin, it shows two sides to the horrors faced by ordinary Germans during the Second World War, horrors often forgotten in favour of the atrocities committed by the upper echelons of the same army for which Peter Faber fights. On the one hand, we have Peter and the small unit of men with whom he lives and fights. Here is the reality of war: the front line, manned by the soldiers at the bottom of the pecking order, while those further up give orders from positions of relative safety. Magee presents these as a series of almost surreal, horrific snapshots, brief glimpses of battle and the aftermath, all seen from the point of view of the ordinary soldier. Why, exactly are they fighting? What will they gain? For Peter, at least, there is good enough reason in the form of his wife and child back in Berlin.

‘Why are you here?’
‘Cannon fodder for that lot in Berlin.’
‘Not that again.’
‘It’s all there is. You can hide behind your wife and child, kill all around you for your wife and child, but you’re really not doing it for them. You’re doing it for the fat bastards in Berlin.’

The other half of the story focuses on Katharina and her family in Berlin. Katharina’s father works for an important member of the Nazi Party and, as a result, receives certain perks that make the lives of the Spinells more comfortable than those of many people around them. We get a brief glimpse of the type of work Mr Spinell, on the orders of the charismatic Dr Weinart, does when Peter is on leave: their job is to evict the Jewish population of Berlin from their homes and send them packing to points east. A large apartment, plenty of food, even a Russian girl to take the pressure of housework from Katharina and her mother, turn out to be less than sufficient payment for the sacrifice the Spinells will ultimately make in the form of their son, Katharina’s brother, a solider also fighting on the Eastern Front. Set against the nightly bombing of the city, and the increasing scarcity of food, the story of the rise and fall of the Spinell family is strangely inevitable while also being heart-breaking to watch. Close to the book’s end, Magee manages to destroy us completely with one single sentence.

For the most part, dialogue forms the backbone of the story, with descriptive narrative very much taking a back seat. Magee’s ability to present a situation purely in dialogue (often without dialogue tags – ‘he said’, ‘she said’) is second to none, scenes running for pages at a time consisting of little more than fragments of speech spoken by two, three, four characters at a time. In these scenes, Magee accomplishes two things: to convey to the reader exactly what is going on, and what the context is; and to simulate a realistic conversation without ever leaving the reader wondering who said what, despite that fact that we’re rarely told explicitly. The characters in this remarkable novel, despite the subject – let’s face it, what could be more generic than a group of soldiers in the midst of war? – are all fully-drawn, each with a unique personality and recognisable voice.

The tone of The Undertaking has an element of the light-hearted. In many ways, this is a consequence of the dialogue-led nature of the story. Despite that, Magee never lets us forget exactly what is going on. We, the reader, find ourselves on the front lines with the men of Faber’s unit, filthy, hungry and cold with no idea if we’ll make it through the next five minutes, let alone to the end of the day. Halfway through, the story takes a sinister twist as Faber finds himself in the centre of the clusterfuck that was the Battle of Stalingrad. Around the same time, Katharina and her family seem to fall out of favour and things take a turn for the disastrous as shortages of food, fuel and medication take their toll on a family already torn apart by personal loss. The disappearance of Katharina’s husband compounds their problems, branding them, by association, as cowards and denying Katharina – due to the lack of any evidence that he ever died – of the war pension that was hers by right of marriage.

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

THE VIOLENT CENTURY by Lavie Tidhar

THE VIOLENT CENTURY - Lavie Tidhar THE VIOLENT CENTURY

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£18.99

Released: 24 October 2013

In the summer of 1932, German scientist Dr Joachim Vomacht powers up a device that will change the world; the wave generated by this device will touch every person on the planet. Not everyone will come through the experience unchanged. Fogg and Oblivion are two such individuals, young British men who discover unusual talents in the wake of the Vomacht wave. Recruited by the Old Man, they join the ranks of the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs – the Retirement Bureau – and find themselves at the centre of some of the Twentieth Century’s most important events. Recalled to the Bureau today, Fogg – much older, but relatively un-aged – must give account of his actions in Berlin immediately following the Second World War, because those actions have repercussions for all of the "changed", even now, almost seventy years later.

Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, The Violent Century, takes us to a world where superheroes are real. And yet, even with these Beyond-Men, Übermenschen, heroes, the history of the world remains relatively unchanged compared to our own. World War 2 proceeds as expected, the same atrocities carried out in the name of racial cleansing; as does the war in Vietnam and the much less-publicised war in Laos. It is, as the Old Man points out early in the novel, as if the Beyond-Men have cancelled each other out; if only one side or the other had them, things might have turned out much differently. In some ways this observation, and the manner in which these heroes seem completely ineffective, reduces them to the mundane, despite the power any one of them might have to affect the course of history.

The story centres around Fogg and Oblivion, two friends – and, it is hinted, perhaps more even than that – who work for the superhero equivalent of British Intelligence, a shadowy organisation that spends much of its time observing, rather than doing. Tidhar sets up a wonderful contrast between the British powers, and those of other countries: the brash, costumed heroes of the United States; the Communist ideals that drive Russia’s Red Sickle; and the Aryan perfection of the white-suited Nazi representatives. In a series of flashbacks – Fogg’s account as he sits in front of the Old Man’s desk in the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, "tonight” – we catch glimpses of the century that has gone before: the moment of change in 1932; the recruitment process, and the initial training of Fogg and his fellow "changed" men and women; observing the war in Minsk, and in Paris, and elsewhere; and everything that comes after.

Jumping from time period to time period, recollections within recollections, Tidhar pieces together the history of these two men, and builds towards the final reveal, which will ultimately explain the relative coldness that exists between them in the here and now. In a world where superheroes are real, there is no need for the fictional kind and, as a result, some of the world’s greatest comics creators – Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – put in cameo appearances as historians, experts in the field. Interestingly enough, it is these characters who have the best lines, and who shine the most light on the questions that the novel repeatedly asks: What makes a man? What makes a hero? "”With great power comes great responsibility,” Lee tells us, echoing one of the best-known morals of any superhero tale, as he speaks at the trial in Jerusalem of Vomacht.

– But what’s a hero? the counsellor says, again.

– It seems to me, Shuster says, it seems to me…you must understand, I think, yes, you need to first understand what it means to be a Jew.

– I think I have some experience in that, the counsellor for the defence says drily – which draws a few laughs from the audience. On the stand, Shuster coughs. His eyes, myopic behind the glasses, assume a dreamy look. Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms to persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution, perhaps. But also hope. Our dreams of heroes come from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of the immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and the colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us.

It’s as close as the novel comes to answering the questions, and we, the reader, are left to decide for ourselves who are the heroes, who the villains. The central characters of this tale are supported by a cast of faces both familiar and new: here is Alan Turing, attached to the training camp for these super-humans rather than Bletchley Park; here, the attendees at the Potsdam conference; a descendant of Vlad the Impaler (or, perhaps, the beast himself); Josef Mengele; Osama bin Laden. The Violent Century is a well-researched and lovingly constructed piece of fiction that, despite its science fiction elements, still manages to remain well within the bounds of realism.

Lavie Tidhar is rapidly becoming one of the most important writers of speculative fiction today. The Violent Century is the work of a writer with talent and confidence to burn. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read, its combination of spy thriller and superhero adventure make for an unusual, but inspired, combination. It’s a wonderful, engaging and thought-provoking novel, written with a style as original as the story itself, and presented by Hodder in a beautiful package that will be hard to resist, even for the most casual collector. Quite simply: perfect!

RATLINES by Stuart Neville

Ratlines - Stuart Neville RATLINES

Stuart Neville (stuartneville.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)

£12.99

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.

TRAVELOGUE: The Church of Saints Cyril & Methodius (HHhH)

HHhH THE CHURCH OF SAINTS CYRIL AND METHODIUS
RESSLOVA
PRAGUE

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.

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