Fatherland by Robert Harris

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Fatherland by Robert Harris

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A decent thriller set in a world where Nazi Germany won WW2, with a well developed alternative-history setting, bearable main character, good suspense management and satisfactory resolution. But writing is clumsy and very journalistic, social aspects of the settings abound in inconsistencies and characters are wooden. Borrow this if alternative history or crime thrillers are your thing but don't bother buying.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: May 1993
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 0099263815

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Perhaps it was a mistake to read this book just after a Nabokov. But I have to say I am disappointed. After reading enthusiastic blurb quotations regarding 'Fatherland' as well as several positive reviews, I expected perhaps not a masterpiece, but a high-class, utterly convincing thriller which might be even straying into the realm of literature. It wasn't.

As a reader of s-f I am perhaps more than averagely familiar with exercises in creation of alternative worlds, and thus less in awe of somebody who managed to imagine and describe a 75 year old Hitler and a Berlin in which Speer's architectural vision has been realised. And of course, I have read that alternative-outcome-to-WW2 masterpiece of Philip K. Dick, "The Man in the High Castle" - wonderfully delirious, magnificently woolly and somehow very convincing.

Despite this perhaps discouraging intro, I hasten to reassure you, 'Fatherland' is a decent thriller; just not as good as it was made to be.

The setting is, as hinted above, a Greater German Reich of 1964, victorious and stretching from the French border to the Urals and Crimea. Other European countries are satellites of Hitler's Germany while US remain US, and supports the Soviet guerrillas still holding on and killing Germans on the Eastern front now located in the Urals.

The main character is Xavier March, an investigator with Berlin Kripo (criminal police), who somehow managed to survive almost 20 years of service without getting too tainted - or so we are led to believe. He is a figure familiar from many sociological sci-fi novels as well as from certain conspiracy thrillers: an outsider, not exactly subversive (yet) but not a follower of the majority herd, with troubled personal life; finding out the Real Truth and exposing the Big Lie behind the society he lives in.

We are meant to like March, but I couldn't, really. He seems plainly stupid or in serious denial and his innocence after these 20 years is implausible. It isn't only secret services and political police that use torture in totalitarian systems. It isn't just the enemies of the state that get their faces kicked and their fingers broken. One of the essences of a totalitarian system is the fact that those in power (and that includes even traffic wardens and certainly criminal police) are free to do anything; any disobedience, and not just political protest, is seen as a subversive action.

Other characters are so schematic that they border on unbearable. There is a feisty, small and dark, arse-kicking American female journalist. There is a friend that becomes an ultimate traitor, there is equally treacherous (although in the past) wife, there are brutal baddies and sophisticated baddies from Gestapo.

The story begins when the body of an old party functionary is found in a lake in suburban Berlin. March starts an investigation, but it is soon taken away from the hands of Kripo and given to Gestapo. The web of murder, corruption and deceit thickens. March keeps on investigating motivated by his loyalty to the job and obsessive need to know combined with his increasing unease and the dawning realisation that instead of catching criminals he is working for them. March meets the American journalist. March unravels the Big Lie. Now it has to be exposed in public. Will he get the proof required? Will he manage to make the exposure public?

The plot seems secondary to the 'what if' exercise, though. The book is simply a vehicle for showcasing the author's vision. The intrigue seems to be tacked on as an afterthought and however well it works, it doesn't really move anything in the reader - or, speaking for myself, it didn't move much in me.

The vision, then. The alternative world of 'Fatherland' is well researched and convincing enough to make a willing reader suspend disbelief. The architecture especially is very important in creating an overall mood and is described well, almost as another character in the novel. But why is it all so well explained? Why am I - the reader - treated like an idiot? Everything, from the meaning of 'Kripo' to the black humour joke based on 'Arbeit Macht Frei' so precisely explained. Surely THAT grimly ironic sentence is known the world over?

All in all, nothing is left for guessing, nothing appeals to readers intelligence or knowledge. This is boring, patronising and I didn't like it.

There is also a stylistic issue concerned with all those explanations. Every time they appeared I was left wondering who the hell was talking there? Was it the main character, the only one whose thoughts we were presented? But surely he wouldn't need to provide himself with English translations...nor with mental charts of the organisational structure of Nazi Police. Was it the omniscient narrator? The author? This seemed the most likely possibility - it seems to me as if Harris included all of his research notes in the text and although such attention to detail and completeness is admirable in a non-fiction or journalistic work, it just doesn't, in my opinion, work for fiction, especially ambitious fiction.

The anachronisms, however entertaining, were not necessarily that convincing. As much as I can imagine Cecil Beaton taking the official Hitler's portrait; I cannot possibly imagine Nazi satellite country producing anything remotely resembling The Beatles.

There are also some slips and inconsistencies in the generally well-structured setting: a society in which abortion is a crime punishable by death is not likely to allow for common use of condoms, is it? But a used condom is found in a sleazy phone booth - an allegory of moral corruption taken from ours rather than the imagined Nazi society.

Above notwithstanding, the setting remains the best feature and really the raison d'etre of the novel.

Overall, I gave 'Fatherland' three stars. Within its genre, it would probably get a comfortable four, but I was led to expect something special and transcending the confines of that genre; and for that expectation - sadly unfulfilled - I take one star off. It is a reasonably good read, and the vision Harris presents is well researched and put together with care and a modicum of consistency. The setting especially is quite atmospheric.

It does, however, read like a book written by a journalist and one produced to serve an instrumental purpose of showing off the result of the author's 'what if' game. The choice of the main character makes the ever-present explanations of the way the society and history work in this alternative world irritating and implausible - it would probably work better with the foreigner but then we wouldn't have the (surplus in my opinion) attempt at a psychological insight.

Does it say anything new? The only truly ingenious idea I found there was a vision of Stalin's Gulags and Katyn graves kept by Nazis as monuments - forever to remember - of bestiality of the conquered Soviet regime. Truly, the winner has the monopoly for moral righteousness, however corrupt they are. And regardless of if it is the real or alternative history.

Recommended? Yes, but not enthusiastically. If you have nothing better to do, by all means, read it; especially if alternative visions and 'what if' exercises interest you.

I have to warn those looking for an easy and entertaining read that 'Fatherland' contains detailed, based on original documents and reportage-like, realistic description of the fate of one transport of Jews in Auschwitz and thus might disturb readers not familiar with those facts.

We enjoyed Conclave by Robert Harris far more.

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