selenak: (Watchmen by Groaty)
[personal profile] selenak
Reading the first Bernie Gunther novel has sent me into the rabbit hole, the marathon reading from which I now slowly emerge, having grabbed all the novels my local library had available and then buying the most recent one, Prussian Blue. By which you can conclude that these novels are addictive, despite or maybe because of their very dark setting and the way Kerr handles it. I didn’t always read them in order, but that works out better than usual in a series because Kerr writes them not always in linear order as well, and several take place in different eras simultaneously (one post WWII, one during the Third Reich), each filling out different gaps in his anti hero’s life. In fact, I’m glad I read, not by intention but coincidence of availability, “The Other Side of Silence” (No.11, probably the one most located in the 1950s, with just one flashback to the 1940s) before “The Pale Criminal” (No.2, set in 1938), because while both novels feature male gay characters, the ones in No.11 are fleshed out and for the most part sympathetic, and also not just one or two but four on page and a fifth one intensely talked about, whereas in No.2 they are solely a weak coward and a villain respectively, which for a novel set during a time when gay people ended up in prison and/or camps in Germany is a highly questionable authorial choice.

(Sidenote: not that you don’t have historical basis for writing gay villains in a story set among the Nazis. I mean, Ernst Röhm. But still.)

Reading the first novel had left me wondering how Kerr would justify Bernie Gunther’s continued survival as a (mostly) ethical P.I. in one of the most brutal dictatorships in history. Turns out, he doesn’t; Bernie gets drafted back into police service by Reinhard Heydrich in 1938, which means that when WWII starts, he along with the rest of the police gets absorbed into the SS, and while he manages to get a transfer into another unit, this doesn’t happen before being exposed to and in one case participating in mass shootings. While some of the novels feature flashbacks to the P.I. period, most therefore have Bernie as part of the institutions he abhors, which simultaneously deepens his moral compromise (and self loathing) but heightens the likelihood of his survival (while also providing the novelist with excuses for letting Bernie be present at some key points he couldn’t have been as a civilian, like the discovery of the Katyn massacre, more about that in a moment). I find this a fair authorial choice – if you’re going to produce a series of novels with a German detective set mostly in the Third Reich, keeping him entirely guilt free of the morass the nation was sunk into would have felt like cheating. I also was able to buy into the premise of various upper hierarchy Nazis – Heydrich, Goebbels, Arthur Nebe – finding Bernie so useful they would want to use him because he’s That Good at crime solving and occasionally even in a dictatorship you need to figure out who actually did the deed as opposed to finding the most convenient scapegoat. (The constant in fighting and rivalry between top Nazis also plays a role in Bernie’s survival, since a good detective is also useful for getting dirt on each other.) Another way Kerr plays fair is having Bernie constantly aware of the sheer insanity of it all – trying to track down individual criminals when the entire system around you has become criminal, and murder and thievery actually are the law.

The Katyn novel - A Man without Breath - is in a way the epitomy of this. The historical background for this with which I was roughly familiar – wiki article to be found here - were the mass executions of about 22 000 Poles by Soviet secret police in 1940, which was discovered and publicized with maximum propaganda by the Nazis in 1943, at which point Stalin of course denied it and blamed the Nazis for it; something Stalin’s successors kept up until 1990, when the Prosecuters General finally accepted Soviet responsibility. (To no one’s surprise, Putin has made moves to unaccept it.)

What I hadn’t known was just to how much length Goebbels went to milk this 1943 discovery for maximum value. (The reason is obvious: to drive a wedge between the Allies. The laters’ response was pragmatic if not moral – they went with the Soviet line and basically told the Polish exiles to shut up already, even after the war, where Churchill in his memoirs still quotes the Soviet justification, presumably because admitting that one of your allies was committing massacres on another of your allies while you simultaneously claimed to fight to stop massacres doesn’t show you in the best of lights.) He invited the International Red Cross, forensic experts from Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, and Slovakia, and even some Allied war prisoners. (And of course harped on “See? This is what we were fighting all along!”, conveniently never mentioning the Hitler-Stalin pact.) . Now, in Philip Kerr’s retelling, our antihero upon the discovery of the first bodies is first tasked to find out who the dead were and whether it was a Soviet massacre and not one committed by the SS before Goebbels goes public, considering that in 1943 of course there were plenty of German massacres being committed in Poland, and before you invite the whole world to look you’d want to play it safe. In another of those coincidences you wouldn’t dare to invent, though Google tells me reviewers have accused Kerr of doing just that, one of the German officers who was a part of the initial investigation happened to be part of the small circle of military resistance against Hitler and in that same year tried to assassinate him. (With a suicide bomber jacket. Unfortunately, Hitler raced through the exhibition the man in question was supposed to guide him through with the result that the jacket bomb, which had a ten minute fuse, still hadn’t exploded when Hitler was already gone.) Which means Bernie also stumbles across said plot, and this leads to one of the darkest things he does in the series in order to keep it secret.

If I’ve made the series sound so far like unrelenting grim darkfic, well, not exactly, or rather, the darkness is appropriate but is not all. In best hard boiled tradition, our narrator and anti hero is relentlessly sarcastic, with a gift for one liners and a penchant for dark humour to keep himself sane. He also comes across good people as well as vile ones, and so while the novels very much feature, to quote a phrase, “man’s inhumanity to man”, they also show examples of kindness and courage even in the darkest of times. Bernie himself becomes increasingly more cynical, dark and broken through the novels – the latest novel, “Prussian Blue”, uses this to great effect by contrasting Bernie in the April of 1939 to Bernie in 1956 -, but he remains capable of feeling compassion throughout, and of trying to help (some) people. He also retains his penchant of bantering and getting involved with the typically noir dames Kerr throws his way. Mind you, I did at some point sigh and wonder whether Bernie ever meets a woman who isn’t gorgeous and who is still important to the plot (there’s a client in the second novel while he’s still a P.I., a heavy, smart and sympathetic woman, but that’s pretty much it), but such are the tropes of the genre. And no, not a single of the novels would pass the Bechdel test, but with a male narrator in a male dominated environment, that’s no big surprise.

Nitpicks: Kerr’s research when it comes to his setting is usually great, but I did spot the occasional mistake not related to central issues or the era, be it geographical (no, Würzburg is not near Regensburg, and while we’re at it, Nuremberg might be technically in Bavaria but its inhabitants do not have a Bavarian accent, they have a Franconian one, which is distinctly different) or historical (Frederick III of Prussia: really not the son of Frederick the Great!). There are also things not impossible but unlikely, for example: In 1934, just after the Olympic Committee decided there was no anti-Jewish discrimination, no, nothing to see, and gave the go ahead for Germany getting the 1936 Games, Bernie temporarily teams up with a (female) American journalist intent on writing a story about the conditions Jews life in Germany in order to trigger an US boycott of said Games. In their initial conversation when she talks about what she’s seen already, he’s being contrary for the hell of it and points out to her that you don’t have to go to Germany to see benches and toilets with signs banning a part of the population from using them, you just have to go to the US (South). Ouch. Not wrong, but I very much doubt that a former cop turned P.I. who has never visited the US would have been aware of this in 1934. (Elisabeth Hauptmann, she who wrote a great deal of the early Brecht plays, was utterly shocked to discover it when she arrived in the US South where her sister was married around the same time. Which we know because she then went on to write an article about it.)

Language trivia: Kerr commendably with a very few exceptions in the first three books has Hitler referred to as “the Leader” not “the Führer” throughout and usually avoids letting his characters (who mostly are Germans and thus talk to each other in German) throw around German phrases amidst their English conversation. He even bothers to translate the South German and Austrian greeting “Grüßgott” into English, which amuses me because it sounds stilted in English which it isn’t at all in German, but here is his translation: “God’s greeting be with you.” Since Bernie is from Berlin and during the Third Reich mostly lives there, It really shows up only in the two novels where he’s also in Vienna.

Not a nitpick, just an observation: one way you can tell this series wasn’t written by a German author but a British one is this: while Bernie at all times is unrelentingly negative about the Nazis, and post war scathing about the hypocrisy of many old Nazis quickly ending up in high positions again, he’s also increasingly prone to acid remarks about the Russians (not least due to having been a POW immediately post war), the Americans (think Graham Greene, mix in some Le Carré re: his attitude towards them), but most of all the French. Not just Bernie but hardly another character passes up the chance to be sarcastic about the (lack of) French Resistance and the widespread collaboration under the Vichy government, to the point where I threw up my hands and exclaimed, give it a rest, Kerr. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the way post WWII suddenly every Frenchman (and –woman) had been in the Resistance and Vichy was reduced to just Pétain and a few sidekicks wasn’t hypocritical, or that Marine Le Pen’s denying of that chapter of French history during the recent presidential election campaign (after the very late acknowledgement by Jacques Chirac) wasn’t worrying. But I felt that Philip Kerr went to the other extreme by basically letting his characters express the view there wasn’t any Resistance at all, which is also not true. Now I do think such a bias is in character for a German with Bernie Gunther’s biography, living at that time, especially since his own (lack of) resistance (or rather, limiting it to sarcasm and trying to create some small scale justice amidst a great monstrosity, while going along with being used by the monsters) gives him a case of projection. But I also think a current day German writer would not go for all the anti French quips; that, in our age, seems to me a very British and US obsession.

(It occurs to me I actually have a point of comparison, albeit to a German language writer who is already dead – somewhat younger than fictional Bernie, born in 1924, but still with a living experience of the Third Reich, Johannes Mario Simmel. His novel “It can’t always be caviar” has his main character, who starts out as a harmless German civilian living in Switzerland, due to various twisty plot circumstances be drawn into WWII and immediate aftermath era events as various secret services – the German, the British, the French, the Russian and finally the American ones – all assume (initially wrongly) he’s working for the others and is in possession of various MacGuffins they want. After early on trying to prove his innocence in vain Thomas Lieven, the hero, wisens up and becomes adept at survival, bluffing and playing out the various secret services against each other (but because this is an early Simmel novel, one of the lighter ones, he does not have to do any of the dark deeds Bernie Gunther has to survive). Now, the French characters in “It can’t always be caviar” are sympathetic, including those after Our Hero, and and I can’t recall a single anti-French quip. Especially not about early surrender and collaboration; instead, central Thomas Lieven has various guilty “what are my countrymen/we doing to France” moments whereas while Bernie has a lot of “what has Germany come to? And What are we doing to everyone?” moments, but never about France or the French.)

Let’s see, what else: ah yes, the construction. Not all of the novels are murder mysteries. “The Other Side of Silence”, for example, in which Bernie is hired by the writer William Somerset Maugham to help him deal with a blackmailer and ends up entangled in the Cambridge Five affairs while he’s at it is a sleek thriller. The use of a “present day” (i.e. post war 1950s ) timeframe combined with a flashback one (1930s and 1940s) in the later novels works in varying degrees, but in the most recent novel, “Prussian Blue” (Past: in April of 1939, there’s been a murder at the Obersalzberg, Hitler’s Bavarian home away from home, just a week before his 50th birthday, and so there’s a panicked rush to find the culprit before the birthday celebrations and before Hitler can hear about it; 1950s Present: due to vents in the previous novels, Bernie has the Stasi breathing down his neck with a death threat and has to either go back to being used by the bad guys or make an escape against the odds), Kerr has it really honed to an art, with the climactic showdowns in both timelines happening in the same place without any of this feeling forced or artificial. This novel, like the previous ones, also excels at something I’ve otherwise rarely seen in fiction about the Third Reich, Schindler’s List excepted, which is at showcasing how utterly corrupt the entire system was, on every grand and petty level. (The various original inhabitants of houses sited near Hitler’s house were forced to sell below price with Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary and right-hand-man, making a fortune, because everyone is very aware that another war is likely to start, another fortune is made by giving young men appointments that will exempt them from service in the army, then there are the prostitutes provided for the construction workers at the Obersalzberg, and so forth.) And you can tell Kerr must have read the most recent book about quite how many Nazis were addicted to meth, because that’s featured, too.

In conclusion: a very compulsive book series. If you’re easily triggered, probably not for you, but then I imagine if you’re easily triggered you’d stay away from fiction set mostly in the Third Reich to begin with. And there’s not an operetta Nazi in sight; these feel like the horrifying genuine articles instead.
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