With each passing year, I read a little more. Some days, it’s to provoke laughter. On others, it’s puzzlement. Some days, it’s to relax. On others, to mentate in places I cannot venture alone. Every year, the choices are different. But, without exception, for a small portion of each year I read books about history. Those books beget more books. Sometimes I then crave the films that are associated with them or resolve to learn more about the people and events that history has inspired. And every few years, I revisit WWII and Nazi Germany. This is one of those times.
In the last 12 months, I have read three books set in or drawing from WWII. The most recent, was Alone in Berlin. The most personal of the three, it carves out distinct personalities on the backdrop of a changing Germany – a refreshing change from the changing Germany against the backdrop of the world. It’s quite a complex tale, based loosely on the true story of a working-class couple that start an anonymous, seditious postcard campaign against the Nazi party. The campaign itself is spectacularly ineffective. Tiny in proportion, it is further hindered by the alacrity with which those discovering the postcards proceed to deliver them to the Gestapo. In the upper eschelons of the party, it causes consternation and the drawn out nature of the “Hobgoblin case” lands more than one official in political hot water.
I would liken this book to an epic in that the characters are numerous and not always connected. At times, I felt I had wandered a long way from where the story ought to be going. We have to excuse my expectations of a fast-paced novel here. It’s actually a 600-odd page book which, thanks to the wonder of very fine paper, is masquerading as an average-length mass-market paperback (ie. 400 pages). Once I had settled into the idea of a more picaresque read than I had anticipated, the lavish detail of personality became thoroughly enjoyable. Hans Fallada contrasts absolute viciousness with pervasive common decency in such a way that we can only wonder at the gamut of innate and cultivated qualities humanity must possess to allow it. So while you may feel a little taken-in at the outset, I encourage you to persevere because the gold written into this story is surely in the latter half of the book when each character is stretched to the limits of its physical and theoretical endurance. Suddenly, I am thinking that authors are quite kind to their creations, as a rule.
Have you read Mother Night? It’s not quite as well-known as Kurt Vonnegut’s other works but I love it more for its sleeper quality. You may have heard this warning from its introduction: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Howard W. Campbell, Jr. An American spy in WWII who used German broadcast radio to communicate information to the allies. He was also integral to the propaganda machine. Protected by the ‘Blue Fairy Godmother’ for services to the nation he has been living under an assumed name in the USA since the war. Now in 1961, Campbell is behind bars in Israel awaiting trial for war crimes. In a state of catatonic depression, he has begged for this trial. This is his story. And it’s a good one.
And last of all, The Street Sweeper. An amazing piece of fiction by my favourite Australian author, Elliot Perlman – better known for Three Dollar and Seven Types of Ambiguity. I have always admired the execution in Perlman’s writing but with this book, he has left behind his introspective and critical assessment of relationships and fallen down the rabbit hole of historical fiction. The result is breath-taking.
The street sweeper is Lamont Williams, an ex-con given a second chance as a janitor in Sloan-Kettering hospital. Here, he meets Mr Mandelbrot an elderly man, dying of cancer who decides to share with Lamont his story as a prisioner and member of the Sonderkommando (the execution squad) in Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is a great deal more to this book (I have, just now, resolved to read it again this Christmas) but the story of the jewish members of the Sonderkommando has stuck with me all year. I have studied a reasonable amount of history in my time, but there seems to be no end to the horrors of the holocaust. With each new piece of information, I am freshly shocked.
This has been a fragmented little post, but then when I read on such a historical binge, I am always left with the most profound fragments of each tale. After reading The Street Sweeper, I was quick to watch Life is Beautiful. In a previous year, it was Searching for Schindler, Schindler’s Ark and Schindler’s List – which rate a mention here as Tom Keneally is a charming Aussie man & author who was handed this story, literally, in a luggage shop in Los Angeles by a Schindler Jew descendent. Did you know that?
Profound stories, even those of great historical significance, are always where you least expect them.
- Have you read any of these stories? What did you think?
- In other years, I have binged on communist China and the US Civil Rights movement. Are you partial to an historical literature binge? What is your weakness?
- Is there a piece of historical fiction, non-fiction or biography (WWII or otherwise) that you recommend without hesitation?