Harding, Thomas: The House by the Lake

To my left stood a row of modern brick houses. To my right stretched an unkempt hedge. And then, there it was, my family’s house. It was smaller than I had remembered…hidden by bushes, vines and trees. Its windows were patched with plywood. The almost flat black roof was cracked and covered with fallen branches. The brick chimneys seemed to be crumbling, close to collapse…” The House by the Lake, p.2

The Monthly Book Group descended in force on Morningside “when frost was spectre-grey”. But it was Thomas Harding, not Thomas Hardy, they had come to discuss.

Outside the grey spectres of Br*xit and Tr*mp haunted the world, while the big news was that Hearts had drawn the Scottish Cup holders Hibs at Easter Road.

[Hmmmm……I like that so much I’ll say it again… “the Scottish Cup holders, Hibs”]

The proposer had been impressed when he had gone to hear Thomas Harding at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Pleasant, engaging and articulate man, riveting story, great photographs. So impressed, indeed, that he had gone to buy the book…. but the queue in the signing tent was long and he had instead gone outside to Waterstones, and bought the book at a discounted rate…

[a discounted rate?!…..run that by me again??]

Thomas Harding, aged 48, was a journalist by background. He had written two previous books, one of which “Hanns and Rudolf” (2013), had been particularly well-received. He was, though, perhaps best known as a maker of documentaries for television.

“The House by the Lake” (2015) told how Harding had returned to his grandmother’s summerhouse by a lake near Berlin. A Jew, she had been forced to leave to escape the Nazis. The house by the lake was now derelict. The book tells the story of his quest to save the house, and his unearthing of the histories of five previous families who lived in it. It shows how the house’s history intersects with that of Germany’s tragic century –  World Wars, genocide, military defeat, occupation.

The proposer found the book fascinating. Harding was able to weave the story together with facts from his own life. His research was very impressive, although, as he acknowledged, he had to invent many of the details in “faction” manner to bring the characters and events to life. He had shown great energy in pursuing his quest. Although he did not shirk from recording the faults and weaknesses of the people he spoke of, including family members, he did so in a restrained and non-judgemental way. He was the objective researcher, not the finger pointer.

The views of the group revealed a varied response. In the red corner:

This is a brilliant piece of very human research into a house and its owners over a period of a century. It says so much about German life with so many insights and a perspective that illuminates the earlier books the Group has read about war time Berlin and the Holocaust.”

Others agreed that following a house rather than a family was an excellent and unusual approach. It was gripping to see the twists and turns of the house’s fate as it descended from rich man’s luxury to doss-house.  And it was remarkable that so many historic events should take place so close to the house.  For example, the notorious Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was worked out, took place nearby on the shores of the same lake, and the Berlin Wall went through the garden.

The themes appealed to many:

 “We attach great sentimental value to houses, not just financial value, because we live in them as families. The story of the Wall was also gripping for me. And the book is a timely reminder when there is a rise across the Western world of nationalism and racism.” 

Another felt that this account of the rise of Nazi racist populism makes you aware of just how impossible it is to control events as an individual. You only have an illusion of control as an individual, a thought that terrified him.

“….yes, this section reminded me of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, where an ordinary person is suddenly arrested by the state without reason and his world is turned upside down”.

Another fan of the book had lived in the Potsdam area, which made it easy to visualise the whole area covered by the book, and feel it come alive.

However, they were now coming out fighting from the blue corner …

“I started off thinking it would be very interesting, but after page 40 it became less so. The author seemed not to have an opinion on anything. There was no edge. In fact it annoyed me that he was such a nice guy…”

Another had similarly found the earlier characters interesting, but the post-war residents of the house were “deeply boring”. It would have been more interesting to learn instead how Elsie and Bella had lived in Britain, and how they had come to prosper in their new surroundings.

And, in a flurry of jabs, the history was “Readers Digesty” and the book was all a bit ‘Tiggerish”!

Moving in with a left hook to hit the book when it was down…. “It has a dull style, peppered with facts, and, as I read in bed, I found I nodded off pretty quickly. It was good, but could have been shorter and better written…

And a right hook from another…. “Harding does detail very convincingly the turn of the fascist screw on the Jews, but the rest is less detailed, and no character comes alive. He is a journalist, not a novelist”.

A red corner reader who had found the book “almost a page-turner” went over to the blue side with the advice that the author needs to get a life and stop going back into his family’s past. The house had become an obsession, a sort of “reverse request for immortality”.

And more comments that the book was not particularly well written. “It didn’t particularly excite me, other than the insight into how Jews felt as the seriousness of the Nazi threat began to emerge.  There is no real build-up of characters, and no scope to develop the history of the house. The book ends up as a fairly superficial social history of 100 years of Germany.

[This fist fight was all getting a bit confusing for your poor scribe. I knew I should never have started on that dry January….]

However, the contest began to subside, as the blue and red sluggers tired. They started to recognise a degree of substance in the views of the other corner, and looked for some common ground.

When I say ‘the whole world knows’, I really mean ‘I think’….”

The style was precise rather than evocative, and Harding was indeed no novelist, but he did not pretend to be. It was not all superficial, as some of the details were quite revelatory – for example the scale of reparations to Jewish people by Germans after the War.

The people in the house after the War might be boring, in the sense of being “low life” or dysfunctional. But wasn’t that part of the tragedy of the house itself, as it fell into disrepair?

Many found the account of life under Communism in East Germany fascinating, and were intrigued by the stories of life at that time, such as that of the drugs for children good at sports, and the incompetent spy.

And although it would indeed have been interesting to learn more about Elsie and Bella in Britain, wasn’t the point of the book to focus on what the house saw?

For the house by the end becomes an observer, a mute and fatalistic observer, of the lives of its residents. And, at least for some, the description of the final decline of the house achieved the sort of resonance absent in much of Harding’s precise writing.

But now they had punched themselves out altogether, and left the book behind.  They were off debating, and of course sorting out, schools education. And after sorting that out they were on to The Donald…..

Thinking that might take a little time, your international roving reporter started on the long journey home, fearful of grey spectres over his shoulder…

Updike, John: Rabbit is Rich

Fading gently towards the venue for the November meeting, as from a gentle three wood, the scribe arrived a little late on a cold night with frost on the ground. However, the small group that waited in the living room soon generated a heated discussion. It was Thanksgiving, so the choice of an American novel seemed fully justified.

The proposer introduced the author, John Updike, and the book, “Rabbit is Rich”, one of a tetralogy telling the story of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom from 1960 to 1990 (with a sequel to form a pentology in 2001). Updike was very prolific, having moved from ‘Rabbit’ country in Shillington, Pennsylvania to Harvard, Oxford, the New Yorker and so to a full time, and very distinguished writing career, winning many major literary prizes.  The proposer cited modernism as an important influence on his style, and suggested that his early concentration on poetry was also clear in his writing, as for example in the superb metaphors in ‘Rabbit’. For example, “He can’t take his eyes off this girl….The milky flecked shoulders, the dent of flesh where the halter strap digs. Squeeze her and you’d leave thumbprints, she’s that fresh from the oven” or “[Pop’s] emphysema just got too bad and you’d find him sitting in a small chair all curled over like a hand sheltering a guttering candle flame from the wind.”

The unusual, possibly unique (according to the proposer) device was that every ten years Updike imagined how his characters developed over the last decade. As well as the characters being ten years older, the novelist is ten years older, America is ten years older. This counter-pointing gives the telling of the story of a life, and the story of the development of a nation, unusual depth, richness and complexity.

Those assembled discussed the uniqueness of this approach. Certainly there are many book series where the character ages (Sunset Song was mentioned), but not concurrently with the author. One member struggled to recall a film trilogy that used the same device, the actors and director aging with the text but no-one else had a Scooby. (Editor: that would be Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Director Richard Linklater, obviously after the Rabbit novels.) Ultimately, it is doesn’t really matter.

The proposer suggested it was the funniest and most up-beat of the novels. It seems to have a higher sexual content than the other Rabbit books, which some may have found offensive or at least tedious. Actually, some thought the ‘instruction manuals’ quite amusing although perhaps too late to put into practice.

As a potential weakness, the long, beautifully formed descriptive and meditative passages, written as a stream of consciousness, can seem (to some) overblown and can slow down the movement of the story. However, surely they were germane to his wider themes and quite hypnotic. There’s not much plot – they are concerned with very ordinary lives, and the delicate interplay of family relationships. Again, the proposer pointed out that they focussed very much on a small community of interest; the inhabitants of Brewer had no real interest or understanding of the wider world. He suggested, alas, that this was true of a large American constituency, and perhaps a constituency that had elected Donald Trump as president. Like Updike, Trump has been accused of misogyny.

There was general agreement about the quality of the prose, and the enjoyment of the descriptive passages. For example, your scribe was particularly taken with the early description of the ‘Hick’ couple, ‘milky pale’ (her) and ‘roughened and reddened’ (him) with the “fat tired 71 or ‘2 Country Squire wagon soft on its shocks, with one dented fender hammered out semi-smooth but the ruddy rustproofing paint left to do for a finish”. That the milky pale girl was his illegitimate daughter was lost on those who had not read the earlier novels, but several hints were dropped in the text to the true aficionado.

After agreement, some disparities emerged and voices were raised. First, there was the question of context. To what extent were the references to global events, such as Three Mile Island and the Oil Crisis, essential to plot or character development and to what extent window dressing? For example, several references are made to the changes in the car market due to the oil crisis but how does this affect Harry, Nelson and the rest of the Rich characters? It illuminates the concerns of the ordinary American at the time, and as the proposer first said the novelist tracks the concurrent development as the characters, and America, change with each new decade. Acknowledging this, at least one of the few found the lack of plot development disappointing in comparison with other North American authors (McCarthy, Ford, Vidal were mentioned) but the proposer argued strongly that this was the point. Suburban life is indeed dull. Further, one couldn’t really appreciate the character and contextual changes without reading the whole Rabbit thesis. As the attendance was already small, perhaps a request to read all five books would have reduced it further!

Another member supported (to some extent) the suggestion that lack of event was a failing. He cited some eminent criticism that had made this point. Unfortunately, the dozy scribe didn’t record these but post-meeting googling found “does on occasion write well … has nothing to say” (Aldridge), “a minor novelist with a major style” (Bloom) and “you say it best when you say nothing at all” (Schlitz and Overstreet). Maybe Updike himself gave the best response in saying that he “gave the mundane its beautiful due” but some liked novels to give higher meaning to life, even the pessimistic one of the previous month given by David Szalay, another story of ‘Everyman’. He compared Updike unfavourably to Austen but the proposer was adamant about the essential quality of Updike’s writing. Oh, well! This is a blog, not a review as such, and many have commented more eruditely on Updike’s work. Schiff says that ‘few contemporary writers have received more attention than John Updike’ and any quick perusal of the internet will discover more theses on Updike than his own prolific output of novels, short stories and poems. As Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Another attendee went on to praise the excellence of the writing about relationships, especially between the father, Harry, and the son, Nelson. There were many such relationships beautifully depicted in the book. He talked of the justified aggression of Harry towards his son; how he found it difficult to be demonstrative, how he couldn’t really get through the generation gap. Nelson doesn’t have to live his father’s life, and yet he follows him into the ‘Lot’? Do we all regress towards our parental mean? Perceptively, he went on to say that although Updike wrote so well about relationships, he did not write so well about individuals. This is an interesting suggestion and caused at least one of us to re-assess the book.

As ever, the discussion wavered from the topic. The subject of weddings was mentioned, and one commented on how the low key nature of the wedding in the novel accorded with his own experience, travelling many thousands of miles to the US of A to find such a low key affair that he thought it was hardly worth the effort! In contrast, another referred to a much more lavish affair. In general, perhaps the marriage of Nelson and Pru is not ‘made in heaven’ but is rather by accident, but as mentioned before we didn’t have the full context in front of us.

Other themes for debate that emerged included the casual racism (not so surprising in Trumped America perhaps), and the lack of likeable characters, although Charlie was named as an exception to the rule. We did not consider the religious background to any great degree, indeed the proposer suggested it did not figure prominently in this novel. However, we did take to ‘Soupy’ Campbell, the religious celebrant with a somewhat relaxed approach to the marriage vows, probably not an obvious candidate for a Free Kirk ministry in the North of Lewis. Unlike the sex scenes, which were probably not meant to be funny, the scenes with ‘Soupy’ were certainly humorous.

So what was the final verdict? This was certainly a book worth reading, and perhaps it did not wholly stand on its own. We would accept the proposer’s view that all four or five should be read but life is finite, so we have to make choices about where to concentrate. Of those present, there was a 50/50 split on whether the other books would be read.

Overall, we all left the meeting wiser and more knowledgeable about one of America’s greatest 20th Century authors, and warmed by the unusual heat of the debate. It was still cold outside, but fortunately we had but a short journey home and so the heat sustained us.

Szalay, David: All That Man Is

The proposer began by referring to two members of the group not present who had sent messages implying that they had found this book boring, perhaps not persevering to the conclusion.  On the other hand, it had reached the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and received glowing reviews in the press.  In fact, the proposer had found the book while browsing a list of recommended new novels for 2016 several months previously. Rather than a set of short stories about different characters, he saw the book development as that of ‘Everyman’, a continuous development of a single and often chastening life experience.

The others who were present had not found the book boring, although one reader expressed the view that it was more like a collection of short stories, and he would have preferred more unified plot development in a novel.  Others liked the way that the book’s structure was more thematic than plot-driven.  The proposer revealed that in an interview published in The Guardian, Szalay had revealed that the book began as a single short story, and he later had the idea of expanding it to be about disparate men at different stages of their lives in different parts of Europe.  One member of the group remarked that having started with expectations of a more conventional novel, he adjusted quickly to what he saw as more a series of portraits than stories.  He felt the social situations of the characters were well delineated, and the drifting nature of the narratives reminded him of Murakami’s writing.  All the men (there are nine principal protagonists in the book, and one re-appears in the last story) were ‘outsiders’, not well-adjusted to society or relationships.  In this respect he was reminded of other European novels such as Camus’ ‘L’Etranger’ and Barbusse’s ‘Hell’.

Some of us were quickly drawn into the book because the first story resonated so strongly with our own experiences of inter-railing as young men.  It was noted that Simon, the protagonist of this first section, was referred to as the grandson of Tony in the final part of the book. However, this seemed only a perfunctory gesture towards the conventional unity of a novel’s narrative. (Another is Murray’s glimpse of what might well be the character Aleksandr’s yacht).  We did see many links between the characters however –  for example the proposer suggested that Aleksandr, with his business empire, could be James twenty years on.  Also most of the men were failures – even the ‘successful’ ones – and the book was strongly tinged with melancholy overall.  As a general observation, we felt that the characters illustrated a predominantly male inclination to focus on ‘things’ (status, career, money, sex) rather than relationships, and so they suffered the consequences.

Some of the characters had redeeming features – for example Balazs begins to interact sympathetically with the prostitute Emma rather than simply lusting for her, and in general one felt sympathy for the characters’ troubles.  An exception was the tabloid journalist Kristian.  It was pointed out that he has no moment of revelation or change or failure to deal with.  He doesn’t come unstuck, unlike the other characters, and instead it is his victim, the government minister, who engages our sympathies.  There was some parallel here with Karel’s story.  We feel sorry for his girlfriend, rather than for Karel.  James, too, is one character who exhibits a faint inkling of what he is missing in not paying attention to his son at the end of his story.  Karel is another who may – it’s not clear – emerge from his selfish bubble.  Others – like Kristian or Aleksandr – seem irredeemable.

The women in the novel were minor characters, but cleverly delineated in such a way that the reader could understand and sympathise with them, even though the male characters with whom they interact generally could not.  This was best demonstrated in Karel’s story, in his brutish response to his girlfriend’s revelation.  It was also interestingly evident in the exchange between James and Paulette in Part Six:

James: “Love,” he says, “It messes everything up, doesn’t it?”

Paulette: “Isn’t love the whole point?”

James: “The whole point of what?”

Paulette: “Of life.”

Many of these men have weak emotional bonds, and this is what is tragic.  Their failure to seek or cherish love means that there is no glue to bind them to society.  One reader pointed out that humans are stronger and better together – that this is even a biological imperative, an aid to survival.

“Carpe Diem” was also a key theme.  It’s introduced in the first story, when Simon is reading Henry  James. (“Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to.”)  Throughout the book characters have flashes of intense experience of the present moment.  Even Murray, the most abject of all the losers in the novel, has a moment of euphoria looking at the light on the sea near the end of his story.  The last story, seeing life from the perspective of a man in his seventies experiencing health problems, ties up the threads of this theme.  Tony can now see how short life is, and how essential it is to live in the moment.

We enjoyed the moments of humour in what is predominantly a somewhat depressing book.  Bernard’s sexual encounters in Cyprus, and Murray’s visit to the fortune-teller were particularly funny – although not without pathos.  We also discussed the theme of responsibility – it was pointed out that the earlier characters have no responsibilities, but then things start to pile up on the later characters.

To conclude: ‘All That Man Is’ is not – in spite of its title – all that man is, unless you have a very cynical view.  The absence of love is the common trait of these particular men; they are more focused on their activity in life than on relationships and they suffer accordingly.

Moorhouse, Roger: Berlin at War

A small but select group of our membership gathered to discuss this book, which took us back to a recurring theme amongst our reading choices – books dealing with the two world wars of the twentieth century.

The proposer had made four recent visits to Berlin and has a fascination with the city.  He mentioned that more attention is paid there to the fall of the Berlin Wall than to the darker history of the war years.  (In this context we discussed the perpetuation of German guilt, and the relish of UK and USA media for World War Two stories and films.)  He considered Roger Moorhouse’s book to be well-researched, and successful in capturing what it must have been like to live through the war years in Berlin.  We agreed with this, finding Moorhouse’s writing style fluent and engaging, and enjoying the tapestry of subjective viewpoints quoted from his primary sources.  The fact that Moorhouse used letters and comments from ordinary individuals rather than resorting to academic or secondary sources made the book very readable and accessible.

We did find that the organization of the book was a little confusing.  Because Moorhouse chose to deal with broad themes – for example chapters on radio broadcasting and on air raids – we sometimes felt a little adrift chronologically.  It was suggested that a list of significant dates and events at the start of the book would have been a useful reference point.

Many fascinating aspects of life in Berlin during the war years were unearthed by Moorhouse, several of which had not occurred to us.  We were surprised by the evidence that much of the population was far from keen on Hitler’s war, and that attitudes to Hitler became considerably more critical (albeit not openly) as the war began to go badly for Germany.

It was interesting that the Gestapo were not as universally feared as is commonly assumed, and that only those with something to hide – Communists, Jews, and anti-Nazis – had to be careful.  However, the extent of malicious false denunciations that the Gestapo and police forces had to deal with revealed a civic population ill at ease with itself.

When the fall of Berlin was imminent, another surprising fact was the high incidence of suicides.  This was partly due to the terror of the Bolsheviks that propaganda had produced, and indeed when Russian troops occupied the city there was a rampage of raping and looting.  When Berlin was largely smashed to rubble, people resorted to chalk messages on the ruins of their houses to communicate with friends, family and neighbours where they were to be found.

Moorhouse backed up his anecdotal accounts with an array of facts and figures – for example about the nature of the artillery in use, and the numbers and types of aircraft involved in raids.  He also gave a detailed account of the various types of camps set up by the Nazis – for imported foreign slave labourers, for criminals, and of course for the elimination of the large Jewish population.  It was interesting to discover how large was the number of foreigners in Berlin during the war years, keeping the economy running while German men were away serving in the armed forces.

We discussed more general points about Nazism and the war.  We speculated that the law-abiding and well-structured nature of German society made the people more susceptible to Nazi organisation and militarism, and more open to Nazi propaganda relating to racial superiority.  The call to restore national pride after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles was also a powerful weapon in Hitler’s appeal.  Our own satisfaction at the current (2016) achievements of UK athletes at the Olympic Games testified to the universality of nationalistic pride.

We commented on ‘what a bunch of oddballs’ the Nazi leadership were.  We discussed the funding of the war – on Germany’s part through the looting of France and the Jewish population, on the UK’s part through loans from the USA, which left the UK a much poorer country than after World War One.  The film ‘Downfall’ about the last days of Hitler was recommended by the proposer, and we wondered – without coming up with an answer – whether there was a book that dealt with London during the Blitz in as thorough and interesting a way as Moorhouse had written about Berlin.

Amis, Martin: Zone of Interest

What is the book about? The title gives no clue. Cursory reading of the first page suggests there’s a love story coming. Only later is the real subject matter unveiled, and then only gradually: this book contains the everyday story of Auschwitz folk and the deeds they carried out in the name of the Third Reich. Auschwitz takes the fictional name Kat Zek.

The tale is told by three narrators, each taking his turn in successive chapters. The first is Angelus Thomsen. He’s the nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s  private secretary, and he’s responsible for managing the smooth running of the concentration camp; the second is Major Doll, the camp commandant (but only loosely based on the real commander, who was Rudolf Höss); the third is Szmul, one of the Sonderkommando, the special squad made up of Jewish prisoners recruited to do the dirty work among the Jewish corpses, laboring with heavy scissors, pliers and mallets, removing gold fillings. In his own words:

We are in fact the saddest men in the history of the world. And of all these very sad men I am the saddest.

But looking on the bright side, there is indeed a love story. In brief: Thomsen loves the commander’s wife Hannah, but whilst she finds her own husband totally disgusting and refuses to receive him in bed, she is unable fully to express her feelings for Thomsen.

Some of us were confused at the start of the book, not realizing the author’s ruse of rotating the narrators, and even after the penny had dropped, we felt the need to revise the real history of Auschwitz. Wikipedia was busy. Certainly the author assumes too much about his readers’ knowledge. Granted, he has done his own research very thoroughly (he boasts of this at the end), but should it be necessary for us to read the book twice as some of us did? One of our group (himself an established author) considered twice-reading to be a compliment to the author. Well, err, yes: I did read Hamlet twice but that’s different.

It’s a book about industrialized evil and its human impact. It raises important questions about the how, the why and the when of genocide. Perhaps each one of us may be capable of causing pain and suffering to a fellow human when authorized to do so by a higher power, as shown in the famous experiment using young males to inflict pain on others (Milgram, 1963).  Did the perpetrators at Auschwitz carry out their deeds just because they were told to (and were scared of the consequences of refusing) or did they share the Fuhrer’s vision of the 1000 Year Reich and how to achieve it by means of the Final Solution? Were they ‘just doing their job’ or were they fanatics, akin to the religious fundamentalists throughout history from the Crusades to the suicide bombers of today? And how did the Germans, the ordinary Germans who are now our friends, ever let this dreadful thing happen? We expected that some of the answers would be given in next month’s blog of Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse.

Yes, humans are a tribal species – but tribalism alone does not explain how any man can trick hundreds of fellow humans to walk into a room before sealing the doors and filling the room with the deadly Zyklon-B. Yes, many parts of the book made grim reading. It’s not for the faint hearted. It prompted us to discuss other ways in which people kill. The clever physicists at Los Alamos inventing the atomic bomb probably saw it as an intellectual challenge. They will never be charged with war crimes. The pilots who dropped the atom bomb, or razed German cities to the ground were far removed from the consequences of their actions, and hailed as heroes. They were carrying out orders and had been trained to hunt and kill. But the staff of Auschwitz were intimately involved in selecting, tricking, killing and cleaning up the mess – all of which was to be done on schedule so that targets could be met. Perhaps the first time they murdered was hard, but successive Aktions became progressively easier, a process of brutalization.

There is humour, more subtle than the familiar war humour of Dad’s ArmyAllo, Allo or Blackadder) but ribald nonetheless. A slight knowledge of German is necessary to appreciate some of it, but that wasn’t a problem. We laughed often, for example: German slang names for the parts of the female anatomy, the nicknames of Goebbels and Goring, anything that Doll has to say about sex. Oh yes, sex and depravity are there too. In fact the Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer David Herman found the book ‘pornographic’, and reminds us that Susan Sontag and Saul Friedländer warned readers about the growing eroticisation of Nazism. Really?

The humour is overshadowed by the bigger picture and the frequent statements of both Doll and Thomsen. As he descends into drunken insanity, Doll says:

In any case, as we’ve always made it clear, the Christian system of right and wrong, of good and bad, is one we categorically reject. Such values – relics of medieval barbarism – no longer apply. There are only positive outcomes and negative outcomes.

 There is plenty of history in this book. The gradual realization that Germany is on the brink of defeat comes on page 164 in my edition, and with it, the realization that the whole project was doomed:

Let me give you a little lesson in war, Golo. Rule number one: never invade Russia. All right, we kill five million and take five million prisoner, and starve another thirty million. That still leaves a hundred and twenty-five million.

There are expressions of humanity, the most profound coming from Szmul. His chapters are always brief and his sentences short and powerful. He imagines what he himself will do if ever sent to the gas chamber. He’d tell the boy in the sailor suit to breath deeply, and the old man to stand close to the meshed shaft where the gas comes in. He is proud that ‘we save a life, or prolong a life’. He is referring to the 0.01 per cent who are young men with a trade. They go to the factory instead of the gas chamber, at least at first.

The story, and the love-story within it, did not end well. How could they?

One of Szmul’s longer speeches is reproduced on the back cover:

There was an old story about a king who asked his favourite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. Instead it showed you your soul. It showed who you really were. But the king couldn’t look into the mirror without turning away…no-one could.

What does it mean? The mirror, like the one in Snow White, reveals the truth. If we look deep inside ourselves we may find dark elements of our psyche that we can’t face. Some people deny them, others come to terms with them, still others can’t control them.

At this, I put my notebook down, nearly spilling my pomegranate juice all over the host’s carpet. It would be blood on my hands, albeit a small quantity. None of us can ever know what it is like to kill thousands, to have hands so bloody as that; and if we were to do so, would we need to commit suicide like some of the characters did when the war was over.

Our discussion tailed off into the parallels between Hitler’s Youth and our own Boy Scouts/Boys’ Brigade. Encouraging nationalism in young people and supporting ‘my country right or wrong’ were popular forms of brainwashing in the 1930s.  And it’s easy to forget that Adolf Hitler, and all he stood for, had significant support in Britain. Is there a causal link: economic stress > blame foreigners > support nationalism > social unrest and ultimately war?

Those thoughts, in turn, led us to contemplate Brexit, the state of politics in USA and Europe, and the upsurge in racism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Then it was time to go home. I won’t be looking in the mirror tonight.  

 Reference

Milgram S (1963) Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67 (4): 371–8. For those unable to download the original, you can read about it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

Hayes, Terry: I am Pilgrim

Your international correspondent was on an extended vineyard tour in the sunny south when the call came through to write the blog for the Monthly Book Group. An  honour, of course. The book, “I am Pilgrim”, they felt, would suit me…

And so to shivering Edinburgh, and a meeting timed to let members go on to watch France v Germany. The Crete-bronzed host admitted the choice of this blockbuster , which had been recommended by his sister, was not his normal style of book or of writing. But he had found the 2013 novel spellbinding.

It rattled along with great rhythm. Its settings tied in with the contemporary world and contemporary problems. It was difficult to write such a long novel and maintain interest, and the author’s screenwriting experience must have helped. The author managed to wrap a murder mystery and an attack on America into one more or less seamless whole.

The host liked the hero, Pilgrim, who was Mr Superman and very professional, but also very human. The other characters were a bit “filmish”, and larger than life.

The book was well received by the Group.  Despite weighing in at a massive 912 pages in one of the paperback editions (and thereby claiming the Monthly Book Group record) most had read it pretty quickly, such was its page-turning quality. It had something of the addictive quality of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. It was a great read, but not profound, nor meant to be.

The book had an American tinge, with American language and a colourful way of promoting people and ideas. The book’s forensic approach to detail was fascinating, if not always believable.

The plot structure consisted of two loosely related plots (so loosely connected, yours truly must have missed the connection while changing bottles of Tesco’s “Full Red”). Unusually, the sub-plot came first, in the fashion of “Psycho”, but this lent some complexity and texture to the novel.

The contemporary material about Muslim fundamentalist terrorism attracted much interest, and gave the book a degree of relevance not common in thrillers. One in our midst was particularly seized by the suggestion that an artificially constructed virus could be used for bio-terrorism. Some research had shown that such a synthetic virus had first been made in 2002. But cutting out eyes to defeat an iris scanner was more fanciful (and not original).

The wide geographical scope of the novel, ranging from west to east and back again, gave depth, and vicarious tourism interest, to the book.

Particularly compelling was the wide range of arcane knowledge that Pilgrim shared with us. Secrets about how to commit the perfect murder, how to detect the perfect murderer, about how the security services eavesdropped on us, about how to break into hotel safes (“I’ll never use one again!), about how to pilot your synthetic virus,  about the sexual effects of different drugs, about how to eliminate your past…. Not to mention how to save the world.

This gave a similar sense of pleasure to that of an Ian Fleming or a John Le Carré novel – that sense of being on the inside, in the know, understanding tradecraft. Our security expert confirmed that the security material was pretty accurate (although could the fundamentalist really have gained and abused his employment in a German chemical factory so easily?). And our scientific advisers even concluded us that it was plausible (ish) that a silhouette might have been captured on a mirror in the remarkable way suggested.

So – five stars all round? From most, but not from all.

One reader, who had amazingly managed to live a long life without either reading a James Bond book or seeing a James Bond film, cared neither for the blockbuster thriller genre nor for this example of it. 900 pages kept him busy but did not touch him. His emphatic put-down was that it amounted to nothing more than a very sophisticated Superman comic!

Another noted that reviews of the book split between five stars and one star without anything in between. Indeed in reading it he oscillated between five star judgements at the rekindling of his adolescent love of such books, and one star involuntary exclamations of “oh for f…’s sake!” at some contrived and implausible passage.

Others, when they stood back from the rush of the book, noted that Hayes (a journalist and screen-writer) was just a bit too obvious in constructing scenes that would help him sell the film-rights. And indeed MGM have duly bought the rights to film the book and envisage it as the start of a franchise.

Although English-born and spending much of his career in Australia, as well as in America, Hayes very visibly targets the American consumer. There are various sentimental strands (including a jolly noble President); lots of lurid violence but not much sex; and as little alcohol as during Prohibition. Nevertheless, Hayes might shock many Americans with his vivid descriptions of the realities of water-boarding, and with his forthright judgements on America’s ally Saudi Arabia. Hayes was remarkably judgemental about the different countries that Pilgrim travelled though.

So we then wandered down a few other avenues.

A small stylistic mannerism – of saying that the hero did “x” and would soon live to regret it– charmed some but irritated more. Picked up from Dan Brown?

Pilgrim was more an assassin than a spy. Was it only post Second World War that popular literature portrayed as admirable assassins (and other sundry paid killers such as hit-men and bounty hunters)?

And how trite was that “I am risen” ending?

But the footie was calling, and so we closed the file on Pilgrim. It’s top notch if you are looking for a compelling contemporary thriller, and the perfect companion for a long journey.

And, if your name is Terry Hayes, the passport to immeasurable wealth.

I am Pilgrim? I am Jealous.