Fatherland – a novel

29 11 2007

Fatherland, by Robert Harris, is, in my opinion, one of those rare examples of good fiction combining historical knowledge and philosophical insights.

Basically, it is a detective novel, focusing on a murder investigation, taking place in Nazi Germany, around the time of Hitler’s 75th birthday celebrations. The “hero” (more of an anti-hero, actually) is a detective in the criminal police (Kripo). The deceased – an “Alter Kampfer”, that is, one of the Nazi party’s real veterans, together with Hitler since the putsch of 1923. And that’s all I’ll say here about the plot of the book, since I think it is really worth reading, and do not want to spoil it for those of you who will read it…

Fatherland - a novel

What I did want to talk about here is the setting. In this novel, Germany won World War 2. The Berlin described there is the Berlin Hitler (and his architect, Albert Speer) planned to build – a monstrous, megalomanic city. Incidentally, really without planning, I read most of this novel on train to and from the Wansee Villa, and later, walking through Unter den Linden, the images from the book came to mind, and it was really scary.

Another thing I found intriguing is the way this setting allows Harris to present very vividly that subject of memory I’m so obsessed with, particularly the issue of the “winners” imposing their desired perception of reality on the institutionalization of memory.

There is a very chilling part there when the hero talks with an American reporter on the subject of “what happened to the Jews” (in Germany, the right thing to say is “they have all gone east” and “you shouldn’t talk about it”). They talk a bit about not being able to tell truth from propaganda, and then the reporter says: “And anyway, wartime is different. All countries do wicked things in wartime. My country dropped an atom bomb on Japanese civilians – killed a quarter of a million people in an instant. And the Americans have been allies of the Russians for the past 20 years. Remember what the Russians did?”

The next few lines are such an excellent example of the case, I really must quote them without additions: “There was truth in what she said. One by one, as they advanced eastwards, beginning with the bodies of 10,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest, the Germans had discovered the mass graves of Stalin’s victims. Millions had died in the famines, purges, deportations of the 1930s. Nobody knew the exact figure. The execution pits, the torture chambers, the gulags inside the Arctic Circle – all were now preserved by the Germans as memorials to the dead, museums of Bolshevik evil. Children were taken round them; ex-prisoners acted as guides. There was a whole school of historical studies devoted to investigating the crimes of communism. Television showed documentaries on Stalin’s holocaust…” (In my edition, by Random House’s “arrow books”, it is on pages 211-212).

Creepy, isn’t it? But also makes you think.



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