Monday, 12 May 2014

Prisoner of Night and Fog, by Anne Blankman

Set in Munich of the early 1930s, Prisoner of Night and Fog tells the story of Gretchen Muller, the daughter of the National Socialist martyr that sacrificed his life to protect Adolf Hitler from state bullets on the night of the  Putsch, Hitler's failed attempt to seize power of Munich in 1923. Raised in a family in Hitler's favour, Gretchen grows up to be a particular pet of the soon-to-be dictator, taken to concerts, dinners and other entertainment with her protector and cherished as a shining example of Aryan purity.

Gretchen has always accepted her family's politics, has been a follower of "Uncle Dolph" since his earliest days. She avoids Jews like she is supposed to, helps her mother run the boarding house like she is supposed to and accompanies her honourary Uncle whenever he wants her company. When she is approached one night by a reporter claiming that her father's death was not martyrdom but murder, she initially dismisses it as slippery Jewish lies. But the evidence is there and after it becomes too hard to ignore, Gretchen starts to question everything she has ever believed in and vows to bring her father's killer to justice.

The plot of this story is strong- it features some genuinely promising ideas that are appealingly original. A detective narrative set in Munich during the rise of the National Socialist Party is an excellent idea- I liked the concept of a murder mystery featuring one of history's most notorious characters as a suspect, even before he was known to be responsible for countless killings. The forbidden relationship between a Nazi poster child and a Jew adds an element of risky romance to the plot, as Daniel the Jewish reporter and Gretchen are drawn together during their investigation, conducting night time raids in the offices at party HQ and eavesdropping on plans for the dismantling and removal of Jewish populations from Germany.

The novel is obviously very well researched and pays close attention to historical details, though sometimes to the point where it feels like the author is sacrificing plot and style in favour of historical information provision. There are details that I didn't feel really helped to enhance the plot or characterisation and seemed to have been included solely to demonstrate the depth of research. Hitler's fondness for Poppyseed strudels, for example.

Personally, I found the prose itself to be more than a little clunky. I never really felt like Munich was conjured up around me, or even Germany for that matter, the setting was quite anonymous. The reader was not permitted to work things out for themselves, instead they were spoon fed exposition at every opportunity. Repeatedly, in some cases. Any reference to the Munich Post is followed with the paper Uncle Dolph hates the most in the World , the paper Uncle Dolph calls the Poison Kitchen, The paper so despised by Unle Dolph or similar. At one point, protagonist Gretchen discovers a dwarf like man (Max Amann) in the frame of the last known photograph taken of her father before his mysterious death. When this diminutive character is referred to (mere pages later) by Rudolf Hess, the author cannot help but describe Gretchen's thoughts:
"Dwarf? Gretchen remembered the photograph in Dearstyne's apartment of her father, Uncle Dolph and three other men heading into the beer hall minutes before they launched the putsch. One of them had been dwarf like. Was it possible that he knew what had happened during the automobile ride to upset her father?" 
This happens frequently throughout and it becomes tiresome quickly. The book would be a more engaging and satisfying read if the reader were permitted to occasionally connect the dots for themselves instead of Gretchen alerting them each and every connection, clumsily vocalising her plodding thought process. It would feel less repetitive and would help to quicken the pace early on in the book. Sometimes it's OK for the reader to have questions too!!

The charactierisation throughout the book varies hugely. Some of the Nazi Party's most infamous individuals are brilliantly drawn and others pop up occasionally, perform a sinister task and then mysteriously disappear again. The author adds depth to some of the lesser-known party members, such as Hitler's friend the piano playing PR man Hanfstaengl, who is actually almost likable...This was one of the novel's greatest strengths, the breathing of life into people familiar in the pages of books or in grainy hand-cranked footage. Blankman does an excellent job of demonstrating Hitler's slippery character, his manipulative and opportunistic nature, his psychopathic ego and his unpredictable moods as well as his charisma, charm and deceptively demure character. It's interesting to see off-duty Hitler in fiction, through the eyes of friends and family. The fervour of his ascent to power is captured well too- the absolute hold he had on the minds of his followers.

The other characters I struggled to believe in as much. Dreamy Jewish reporter Daniel and "everything I've ever known is a lie" Gretchen. I felt from the beginning that their relationship was immensely unlikely. Downright dangerous for him. If you were a Jew in 1930s Munich, why would you approach Hitler's pet and offer to do them a favour? In particular, I was disappointed with was the ease with which Gretchen shed every single prejudice and opinion she had ever held. Having been brought up in a party household by a father who was one of Hitler's earliest followers- having eaten Nazi propaganda for breakfast, dinner and tea for 12 solid years, it takes Gretchen mere moments to cast off her Nazi sensibilities and fall head over heels with a forbidden Jew. I'm not saying that this was the wrong thing for her to do obviously, but I would have expected a more gradual, conflicted transition. More convincing reluctance, more inner struggle.

A mixed bag, in summary. It's unfair to call it a bad novel, but I think it could have been vastly improved with a bit of extra editing and more vivid, evocative scene setting. Some of the exposition would benefit from ruthless pruning, allowing the reader some room to think for themselves. Also some of the historical detail could have done with being more seamlessly woven into the novel's setting or characters, so that they felt less of an interestingly relevant historical fact and more a part of the narrative. It's gripping enough, once the pace picks up about half way in, and it's informative, providing a brilliant version of Hitler's rise to power and the daily ins and outs of the quickly growing Nazi party. As ever, Hitler proves to be a fascinating character, and this book has done a good job of bringing his 'between Wars' years to life, including his surrounding cast of intimates and subordinates. It's kind of like seeing Annekin Skywalker before he becomes Darth Vader...the reader knows where its heading and just wishes the other characters did too.

No comments:

Post a Comment