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It is easier to generate suspense in an alternative historical novel than in one that scrupulously remains within the parameters of fact, and Robert Harris's FATHERLAND, set in a Germany that had won the Second World War, is a real nail-biter. But Harris has shown over and over that he is clearly up to the challenge posed by the novel that respects historical fact. His chronicle of the struggles of a Roman aqueduct engineer to survive the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii is ample proof of that. Every reader knows well enough what happened in August 79 but that in no way prevents us from breathlessly following the events as they unfold as though they might come to a different conclusion. Much the same can be said of his AN OFFICER AND A SPY. Every likely reader will know at least the bare outlines of the Dreyfus case, but still will follow Georges Picquart's reluctant conversion to the truth with fingers crossed.
Harris's current foray into historical fiction takes us back to 1938, to Munich and the meeting between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, on the eve of Hitler's threatened invasion of Czechoslovakia. It is this meeting that resulted in the Munich Agreement, which permitted Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia in return for what Chamberlain would announce as "peace for our time" on his return to Britain. His utterance, widely reviled even at the time, would come to represent a failure of nerve, a cynical capitulation to Hitler's demands to which the Churchillian declaration that "we shall fight them on the beaches..." stands as a rebuke.
Symbol of cowardice at worst, of incomprehension at best, the Chamberlain of popular memory is not Harris's Chamberlain. The Prime Minister is not, granted, a bold or even especially principled leader, but he is a man fully aware of the situation he and his country are in at the present moment. It is a country making some half-hearted attempt at civil defence - a barrage balloon in St James's Park, children being fitted for gas masks made to look like Mickey Mouse - but in fact Britain has neither the armaments nor the troops to fight a war. And it is a country still scarred by the enormous losses suffered in the Great War, which had ended merely twenty years before. Chamberlain needs to buy time and if the Czechs are going to pay for it, well, so be it.
The time span of the book is very brief - the four days between the decision to go to Munich to attempt to dissuade Hitler from starting a war to the successful end of the meeting and Chamberlain's return to England bearing tidings of peace. It is through the respective eyes of two college friends, one now the PM's private secretary, Hugh Legat, the other a German, Paul Hartmann, a diplomat and secret opponent of Hitler, that we view events. Hartmann is absolutely convinced that Hitler must be stopped, but, though he is armed and close enough perhaps to assassinate the Führer, he cannot quite bring himself to do the deed. Instead, he wants Legat to arrange a meeting between Chamberlain and himself, when he will produce documentary evidence of Hitler's plan for world domination. It is a plan that risks Hartmann's life and Legat's career and we do want it to succeed, as though 20th century history could be re-written and its horrors erased.
The participants in the meeting are brilliantly evoked, their descriptions based on the photographic commemoration of the event. But German film of the period is an influence too. Himmler's spectacles flashing in the light of the chandelier "like two blind discs" irresistibly recalls von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, while the mobs in the Munich streets could have been photographed by Leni Riefenstahl, except for the fact that it is Chamberlain they are cheering this time, not der Führer.
But the most striking image of all is Hugh Legat's vision of the Prime Minister himself, descending from his plane once more on British soil. His fateful "peace for our time" comment was to come later, outside of Downing Street, but he reads the text of the agreement which he hopes is "only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace." Whether he believes that prospect is even possible is uncertain, but he has bought time and that will have to do. The image Legat bears of that fussy man in his old-fashioned collar, too vain to wear his glasses to read the agreement, will remain indelibly fixed in Hugh's mind for a lifetime, the image of "the jagged black figure at the centre of a great bright light, like a man who had thrown himself on to an electrified fence." Too soon will the world learn that this was how concentration camp inmates committed suicide when they could stand no more.
Harris prefaces his novel with an epigraph: "We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future." (F.W. Maitland, historian 1850-1906). At one point, an ex-car salesman turned Sturmbannführer defends himself against what he believes to be Hartmann's elitism: "I can see what you're thinking, Hartmann. 'What a vulgar fellow! A car salesman!'...But we have done something your kind never managed. We have made Germany great again." Readers would be advised to keep Maitland's advice in mind while reading this utterly absorbing novel.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2017
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