A dead body and questions better not asked

fatherland

Robert Harris: Fatherland ISBN 978-0-09-957657-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What if Hitler had won? Well, if Hitler had won I most likely wouldn’t be writing this. Considering the background of my family, my grand-parents would not have led the life they led after 1945, my parents would most likely not have married and I would most likely not have been born. Hitler hasn’t won however, and so here I am writing a post about a book that I have looked forward to read for almost 20 years and never actually did. It only happened because I had forgotten another book at home and craved for something to read. The bookseller at the railway station made my day.

If Hitler had won, Germany would be ruling Europe from the Atlantic to Siberia, Moscow would be occupied by the Germans, Washington would be appeased by the same Germans and the United Kingdom would not play any role at all. The 1960s are Harris’ setting for the plot of a fantastic thriller. The dead body of a man missing one foot is found in Berlin. He leads to more dead bodies and a gruesome conspiracy to hide an even more gruesome crime. If most of the action takes place in Berlin, the reader is dragged for 24 hours to Switzerland to discover the Swiss understanding of a discrete banking place.

Detective Xavier March from the German Kriminalpolizei is leading the investigation, by pure chance as a matter of fact. He happened to be awake when the phone rang while is colleague on duty slept like a baby. March’s mistake was to pick up that phone. He is not exactly an enthusiastic Nazi, and once the Gestapo comes into play, it quickly becomes apparent that the secret police is not too keen that March solves the case, much to the contrary, the Gestapo does everything to dissuade March from asking the right questions and collecting evidence. The hunter becomes the hunted. As to how and why, if you haven’t read “Fatherland” yet, now is the right time. For two reasons.

First, it’s an excellent thriller. I had a hard time to put it down. Second, it has a message that is relevant today, never mind the harrowing setting: Once we suspect something is amiss with our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues – are we ready to ask questions? Or do we turn a blind eye to it because we are afraid to lose a personal privilege, our social position or the esteem of someone important? Once we have identified evil, what do we do to stop it? To change something? Do we wait for somebody else to take the initiative or do we stand up ourselves for justice, freedom, a life without fear?

These are the questions March is compelled to ask himself over and over. A family photo, showing the previous occupants of March’s flat, sets into motion a dangerous intellectual chain reaction in March’s brain, dangerous for him, dangerous for his hidden enemies. The Nazi rulers relied upon the fact that man often is too lazy to leave his comfort zone. Better not ask any questions. Better no dispute the official truth. Better not think. The question however is whether one strives to be a human being or just wants to be a shadow.

The composer Arnold Schönberg wrote music that was meant to reflect man’s progress, his active movement, his way forward to transform society. Here is his String Quartet No. 3:

A democratic revolution – all notes are equal

It’s 5 to 12 – About War, Peace and Betrayal

arris Munchen

Robert Harris: München (English title: Munich) ISBN 978-3-453-27143-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ It seems paradoxical, but the world has never been closer to a devastating war in Asia than today. True, the Singapore summit of US president Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Kong Un has been a brilliant photo opportunity for both politicians. Unfortunately it has raised utterly unrealistic hopes, since there is no consensus on the core issues that lie at the heart of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program. The pledges made are vague and thus irrelevant.

Without these weapons, the regime in Pyongyang while falter, and that’s why it will not give them up. It has spent years and billions developing them while North Koreans starved, and that’s why it will not give them up. As charming as Trump appeared, the North Korean regime trusts nobody. And that’s why it will not give those weapons up. It may make concessions to ease the present sanctions – and it will try to cheat as it has done on similar occasions in the past. Just like Saddam Hussein in Irak, just like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Dictators cheat, and at some point Trump will find out. And he will throw a tantrum. An angry tweet screaming betrayal – the emotional reaction of the president is predictable. It will be the start of the war. Male mammals’ reaction to betrayal is an uncontrollable eruption of violence.

The world has seen a similar constellation before. 1938. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler meet in Munich. Chamberlain entertains the hope that by asking for a guarantee that Nazi Germany will resolve territorial and political disputes peacefully war over the future of Czechoslovakia can be averted. “Appeasement” – the name of this approach was coined later, but Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler by accepting that certain regions of Czechoslovakia become part of Germany while the rest remains independent. He betrayed the Czechs, but he gained a year that helped the British Empire to rearm. It did not save what was left of Czechoslovakia – Germany annexed it in 1939 – and it did not save peace: From 1939 on, Hitler would declare war to Poland, France, Great Britain, Russia and finally the United States.

In his brilliant novel “Munich” Robert Harris describes the climate in Munich while Chamberlain and Hitler discuss the issues at hand. The novel paints Chamberlain’s initiative in a benign light – and I will have to read up in a history book what his real legacy was – and at the same time it puts two other characters on the center stage. A German diplomat with links to a resistance group, Paul von Hartmann, and one of Chamberlain’s Private Secretaries, Hugh Legat. Both have met before, as students in Oxford, they were friends until k they lost sight of eachother again. In 1938 von Hartmann tries to convince Legat and ultimately Chamberlain of the true nature of the Nazi regime: born out of violence, bound to use violence. Violence against other countries, violence against its Jewish citizen, violence anyone deemed an enemy. Classified information changes hands, the SS is breathing down the neck of von Hartmann. The endeavour fails. Chamberlain is being betrayed by Hitler and his political opponent Winston Churchill will fight the war Chamberlain wanted to avoid.

The German translation by Wolfgang Müller is 426 pages long, it took me less than two evenings to read it. A real page-turner. I loved it. I also love a piece of music that has been written during that time, marked by political tension and the fear of betrayal, Bohuslav Martinu’s Double Concerto:

“Looking for hope that did not come”

The Übermensch in Search of His Soul

David Khara: La trilogie Bleiberg (English title: 1. The Bleiberg Project 2. The Shiro Project 3. The Morgenstern Project) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-2290149942 The plot is quickly told: Aytan Morgenstern is a Mossad agent tasked to hunt down war criminals. In the first part of the Bleiberg trilogy he  sets out to triumph over a international criminal organisation that facilitated in the past the rise of Hitler and in the Nazis’ wake gruesome medical experiments undertaken by the SS to create the Aryan Übermensch.

Agent Morg’s personal fate is linked to those experiments, the link is a key element of his determination to fight his mysterious opponent. His enemy – the Consortium – however is not a shadow of the past, it determines the present too because it controls pharmaceutical companies and research labs and under th guidance of Viktor Bleiberg it tries to manipulate genetically a substantial part of the earth’ population – the Bleiberg project is at the center of the first part of David Khara’s riveting trilogy.

The second part – the Shiro Project – has a related background, the horrifying Japanese experiments in Manchuria during World War II. Nonetheless it follows a different line. Morgenstern has to team up with a killer of the Consortium. Biological attacks shake Moscow and the Czech Republic and threaten the Consortium’s economic interests. The virus used by the attackers came from a lab controlled by the Consortium and, being a criminal organisation, the mess requires an in-house solution. It kidnaps a person dear to the Mossad agent and blackmails him into cooperation. This framework allows the French writer to sketch the complex personality of Aytan Morgenstern.

While the first novel is abundant with violent action, fast-paced and a descent into Dante’s inferno recreated my mankind, the second novel is more subtle, interesting psychological and philosophical questions are integral part of the plot and emphasize the idea of the writer to see what mankind can learn from the past. It also tries to cast a definition of heroism very different of what you might imagine from a standard Mossad agent character.

The last volume – The Morgenstern Project – picks up a thread of the first volume: overcoming man’s natural physical and psychic limitations through technology. Transhumanism is the keyword – fusing man’s body with sophisticated technology to produce super-humans. Aytan Morgenstern – victim and benefactor of Bleiberg’s experiments – is being chased by people interested in his exceptional strength, intelligence and fighting capacities. The Consortium, the CIA, the Pentagon – all the usual suspects are involved and again a lot of action is seen e.g. in down-town New York. The head of the Consortium – Cypher – is the mastermind behind a diabolical plan that Morgenstern is beginning to decrypt, and the agent is more resolved than ever to neutralize the threat emanating from the Consortium

Morgenstern gets a lot of help in the last volume of the trilogy : two former colleagues, two characters from the first volume and a mole inside the Consortium. Furthermore the Mossad officially has broken of all contact to the “former agent Morg” to give him additional operational leeway. All seems to work according to the plan – but whose plan? Is Morgenstern being manipulated? If so, to what end? I will not spoil anyone’s pleasure by giving away the key to the mystery and let you enjoy the 983 pages up to the very last.

While Khara definitely wrote a work of fiction, the three volumes touch some very real issues: Man’s ambition to rule over others. Man’s temptation to abuse of its power. Man’s greed and vanity leading to the abolition of moral values. Man’s ability to inflict harm and man’s ability to suffer. Repentance is a thought that came to my mind several times while I read this page-turner. At times I had to get away from the fascinating plots to ponder the implications of man’s many failings in the world of today. In 1881, the German composer Max Bruch set to music a jewish prayer of repentance: Kol Nidrei, the Adagio for Cello, Op. 47.

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

Moscow’s weakness and our own moral corruption

John Le Carré: The Russia House. ISBN 978-0-141-19635 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I remember the day the Soviet Union ceased to exist: December 26, 1991. I was dumbstruck by disbelief. The Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war had been part of my cosmos since I had been able to think for myself. The Catholic priest in our little chapel once had remarked we were lucky to live close to a NATO logistics hub. In case of war we would be vaporized instantly by the nuclear blast. No suffering, no radiation sickness. A fellow student of mine had protested against the fielding of nuclear-tipped SS-20 missiles aimed at NATO countries. The Soviet Union was a fact and I had every reason to perceive it as a threat.

I came to think of that time when I read Le Carré’s spy novel “The Russia House”, his first post-glasnost novel, published in 1989. At the time I wanted to believe in Mikhail Gorbatchev’s new policy: a Soviet Union embracing transparency (glasnost) and setting out to systemic reform (perestroika). My dad called it a lie – the Communists were not to be trusted – and warned me: Don’t come home with one of these t-shirts with “CCCP” written all across it or else…

I greatly enjoyed “The Russia House” for it gives the blurred emotions of hope and misgivings I felt back then precise contours. After Gorbatchev had made public his ideas on glasnost, a Soviet scientist working in the field of nuclear misdiles, wants to pass intelligence about the failing Soviet system to the West, hoping to trigger nuclear disarmement by exposing Moscow’s weaknesses.

Idealism, the hope for peace, the moral responsibility towards the next generation – these factors propel the plot forward. The detailed and cynic narrative of a joint US-UK intelligence operation – running a reluctant agent in Moscow to make contact with the scientist – provides the background for a much more philosophical insight: that the Western societies at the time were no less corrupt and failing than the Soviet Union before its dissolution. The Soviet Union was a convenient scapegoat for many things that went wrong, a wonderful excuse for morally dubious policies. The Soviet Union suited the West fine as a projection of its own dark side.

You may ask of what interest this may be today, some 28 years later. Well, first it is a goid read. Le Carré is a brilliant story-teller and this novel is yet another proof of hos talent. Second, the Soviet Union has been replaced by an autocratic and thoroughly corrupt Russian Federation, the nuclear arsenal remains in place, Moscow pursues an aggressive foreign policy hoping to restore its former Soviet lustre (if it ever had any) and we seem to be again at the threshold of a new confrontation, possibly on European soil. As for our own moral corruption, the examples of the United States and the United Kingdom are not exactly reassuring.

It is certainly no coincidence that Le Carré picked Dmitry Shostakovich’s music to illustrate the only consolation of a secondary character of the plot, a man who had just been released from the Soviet forced labor camps. Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in C minor amounts to a look back at the Soviet Union, times of fear and broken dreams.

Paranoid feelings as the sun sets on the countryside

Hunting down the Templar knights’ treasure

Eric Giacometti, Jacques Ravenne: Le septième templier ISBN: 978-2-266-22902-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Once more the French police officer Antoine Marcas embarks on a quest – the legendary Templars’ treasure. Narcas is a Free mason, who many seeas the successor of the Templar knights. The opponent this time is a high-ranking employee of the Vatican, hiring a killer commando, that leaves a blood trail in Paris and Rome. Much is at stake: The Vatican needs money. History seems to repeat itself. In the 14th century, Pope Clement and King Philippe of France persecuted the Templars to lay their hands on the Templars’ wealth. They failed. Will the Vatican succeed this time?

A certain church in Paris plays an important role in the novel – Saint-Merri. The composer Camille de Saint-Saëns once played the organ here and I recommend his  Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viol and Cello in E major:

Ce n’est qu’un au revoir!