Sunday, 14 October 2012

Review: Fatherland, Robert Harris


Robert Harris

Arrow, 2012 [20th Anniversary Edition] (1992)

It is April 1964 and one week before Hitler's 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin's most prestigious suburb.

As March discovers the identity of the body, he uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich. And, with the Gestapo just one step behind, March, together with an American journalist, is caught up in a race to discover and reveal the truth -- a truth that has already killed, a truth that could topple governments, a truth that will change history.

Fatherland is an alternate history novel, set in a world in which Hitler and the Nazis have triumphed in WWII. The book's events take place in 1964 in Berlin, which stands as the capital of the Greater German Reich, a city dominated physically by the looming dome of the Great Hall, overshadowing the area around Unter den Linden, and in everyday life by the vast bureaucracy of the regime, which keeps a close watch on all of its citizens. Eastern Europe has been dissolved into the Reich, and the countries of Western Europe, still in existence, form the European Community, over which Germany maintains a large amount of control. Only Switzerland remains outside of any form of German power, essentially a no-man's-land right next door. The USA is aiding Russia in its guerilla war against Germany, and Germany and the US are the two Cold War powers, edging--perhaps--towards detente.

In the middle of all of this, the novel focuses on Xavier March, an officer in the Kripo (Kriminalpolizei), who is investigating the death of a prominent Party member in the week leading up to the vast celebrations for the Fuhrer's 75th birthday (Fuhrertag). March is in many ways a typical police-officer-in-a-novel. He's divorced,  and his relationship with his young son is strained, particularly when it becomes known that his son has been informing on him to the Gestapo, who are charged with investigating subversive behaviour. March is in dogged pursuit of the truth, and his suspicions are heightened by the case he is on. Rather than leave things alone, he embarks on a dangerous quest to uncover the truth, aided by an American journalist and borrowing favours from his friends in various government offices, much to their discomfort.

At the centre of Fatherland emerges the question of what happened to Europe's Jewish population during the war. The Holocaust has never been revealed in this version of events: Jewish people have simply been 'relocated' to the East. The case that March is investigating slowly becomes intertwined with the truth behind this whitewashed version of events, putting him in even more danger.

I am a big fan of alternate history and of crime novels, and in most respects this was an excellent book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Harris creates a depressing, grey image of Berlin after twenty five years of Nazi rule, a population cowed by the knowledge that they are being watched, that their friends and neighbours are compelled to report undesirable behaviour. The graffiti March sees on a wall - "Anyone found not enjoying themselves will be shot" - sums up the oppressive atmosphere enveloping the city and the wider reaches of the German Empire. The historical information that the book is built upon seeps in as the book unfolds, rather than being dumped on the reader all at once. While this made the crime-novel aspect of the book more enjoyable, I did often find myself wanting more details. While there are explanations of how Germany came to win the war, and of the country's relationship with the USA and Russia, the book was quite sparse on details of everyday life, and it would have been interesting if that had been more well-developed.

The crime side of things was a little slow at times, and built up quite gradually, but the final third of the book was much faster-paced as everything started to come together. March is a compelling main character, increasingly disillusioned by his life as a police officer and (by default) a member of the SS, investigating the case in front of him even when threatened with the SS Honour Court and faced with interrogations and a regime to which death comes easy.

The ending was deliberately ambiguous - both hopeful and devastating all at the same time. While there were some slow parts in the middle, by the end I couldn't put this book down. A gripping, slightly uncomfortable read at times, highly recommended.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Book source: Bought from Waterstones, Brighton.

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