|Image from www.panmacmillan.com|
Mantle, 25 August 2016
Source: I'm grateful for an advance copy of this book to review
It is early 1944. A soldier rides away from battle through a fairytale landscape of glittering ice, snow-boughed trees and frozen rivers. he is injured and will have to spend many weeks and months recuperating before being discharged home, used, broken and racked with guilt. But the war hasn't finished with him, and even on that journey back from the Front, he passes another train - 'a long line of snow-roofed cattle trucks'. There are no windows, only high, barred slits. 'From some of them - not all - thin, blood streaked hands ingnored the wire to reach out, as if looking for something their owners couldn't see.'
In 1944, on the Eastern front, the Third Reich is entering its final days, reaping the fruits of murder. Brand is coming home to face his past, make what peace he can with it and try to save something. meantime, Polya is also coming, part of the all conquering Red Army, driving her T-34 tank on the long road to Berlin.
In an afterword, Ryan explains how this story was inspired by a real place - an SS rest hut in German-occupied Poland, where murderers and torturers came to forget their work and relax. The book includes two photographs from an album kept by one of the officers looking after the hut during those last days: incongruous pictures of Christmas trees and hunting parties. This contrast between everyday life - if one can use the term - and apocalyptic events taking place over the hills, where the Russians approach, or down the road in the camp, where human beings are butchered, underlies the story, beginning as a mere convenience for the hut's orderlies and guests - the ignoring of inconvenient and evil truths - and growing into a grand collective delusion as the enemy approach and the end comes near - but none dare admit it.
That battle rages in all the characters (except Polya, perhaps) - Brandt, who was forced into the army to escape 'political trouble' and bears a double guilt, for what he did then and for the fact that his lover fell into the hands of the Gestapo due to him; for Neumann, in charge of the hut, who has been excused 'active involvement' in the camp after a trauma which literally haunts him; Jager, the hardened Waffen SS man who has no hope left and sees through everything. Only, perhaps, the more stupid remain comfortable.
I was in two minds about this pervasive guilt and sense of mis-ease. At one level, it might be reassuring to think that many Germans - and those who joined in the terrible crimes of the Second World War - knew, at some level, that what was happening was utterly wrong. I want to believe in their humanity, that they would be troubled by what was happening, what they were complicit in. That seems like a sign of hope, a small flower in a bleak desert. But no - I think what the book demonstrates is the terrible power of events, of going along with things. Those mental reservations, that unease, doesn't save a single wretch from death. Still less the realisation that it's all going up in flames and time to turn to turn coat and denounce what's been going on. (A couple of soldiers discuss the inevitable future war between the West and Russia and how they will be needed in it).
In this moral cesspit, Brandt, tainted and loathing himself, tries to rescue those he can. His determination to atone plunges us into an action-filled and morally ambiguous story, one that powers along like those Russian tanks sweeping westwards. Against the huge forces in motion it seems as though nothing he does can have any significance, yet he, and some of the others, do what they can. There is the woman he lost all those years ago and her fellow prisoners. There are the boys and old men of the village, press-ganged into Hitler's last ditch Dad's Army, the Volkssturm. There's his sister and the rest of his family. (The village will not be safe when the Russians come: but even before that, it's not safe - partisans prowl the woods and fanatical Nazis like the Mayor prowl the streets. And it hasn't been safe for many for years: "The Glintzmanns have moved away"). The political prisoner, Agneta, knows that the body of her Jewish friend Lena should be washed but only has tears to do it with. The two women who are 'Bible students' refuse to condone the killing even when a single word would free them at any time. does what he can.
One can't escape guilt - even Polya suffers guilt as her tank crushes a refugee wagon and kills a mother and her children - and there is no redemption or absolution here but one can try to save something from the wreckage, perhaps, make things a bit less bad. But it's deeds that count not inner guilt, unspoken repugnance nor even - as with a couple of characters - self-destruction (either by suicide or throwing oneself at the approaching Russians).
It's a sobering and at times desperately sad book, a story of love, loss, revenge, guilt and endurance - perhaps above all, of endurance. A magnificent read and a real reminder of the times Europe and its people have been through and the need to be on our guard against their repetition.