HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. The Traitor’s Emblem is the latest novel from Spanish writer Juan Gómez-Jurado. The setting is a different European country, as thHIGHLY RECOMMENDED. The Traitor’s Emblem is the latest novel from Spanish writer Juan Gómez-Jurado. The setting is a different European country, as the story follows the lives of two closely-related but feuding German families through the twin horrors of the World Wars.
The book opens with a tantalising prologue of a storm at sea in 1940, from which four enigmatic Germans are rescued from drowning. One of the saved – a man with only one eye – imparts a departing gift to their valiant Spanish saviours – a solid gold and diamond emblem. It’s the story behind this mysterious man and his priceless but sinister gift that forms the rest of the narrative. The identity of the one-eyed man remains a puzzle until very late in the book, and turns out to be an astonishingly clever twist in a plot full of delightfully clever surprises.
Although the World Wars and other effects such as the economic depression in Germany after the Treaty of Versailles, and the inevitable rise of the Nazi party form the backdrop of the novel, The Traitor’s Emblem isn’t overtly political. Although it helps to know the basics, a thorough understanding of Twentieth Century history isn’t required to enjoy the story, as Gómez-Jurado ensures that the plot is always character-driven. There are plenty of mysteries that slowly unfold, as Gómez-Jurado keeps a masterly grip on the unweaving of his tale. Why the gold and diamond emblem is considered a traitor’s emblem, lending itself to the title of the piece, and why it’s worth a fortune is one of the central enigmas, linked to the esoteric cult of the Masons, with which two of the characters become embroiled.
In a deliberately confusing opening, it’s not clear who the protagonist of the story is (the device of a story within a story, a tad hackneyed these days perhaps, is put to imaginative use), but it emerges as Paul Reiner, a young man whose family work as servants for the rich Shroeders, even though his mother is the sister of the lady of the house. There are sustained and deeply entrenched rivalries and secrets between the families. From childhood Paul experiences a bitter feud with his cousin Jürgen, a handsome bully who flouts his wealth and status (he will inherit his father’s title of Baron) over his lowly cousin. Paul falls for the Jewish Alys Tannenbaum, whose wealthy father wants to arrange a marriage between her and Jürgen, whom she despises. Their lives are destined to remain forever entwined, and despite the massive historical events happening all around them, fate contrives to bring the three of them into contact time and time again.
Gómez-Jurado is a writer of consummate skill. He makes you care for the main characters and their fates, whilst creating a richly complex and compelling story. The Traitor’s Emblem is a real page-turner, with something exciting or unexpected happening in each of the short chapters; so it’s easy to devour the whole book in only a few sittings. The beauty and quality of the prose (thanks to an excellent translation by Daniel Hahn) ensures that doing so is a real pleasure.
There’s nothing that fundamentally doesn’t work about the book. The characters; their believable romances and obsessions; the intriguing plot that constantly astonishes and the quality of the prose and the grip Gómez-Jurado keeps on the timeline as the story belts through the years are all first-rate, and the work of a mature and highly gifted writer.
There are some truly exceptional moments, but it is difficult to discuss them in detail without giving away major spoilers, and it’s the unremitting revelations that are one of the book’s greatest assets. In fact, there are several occasions where the reader learns something even about dead characters that completely alters their perception of them. I will say that a climactic scene in the Nazi concentration camp Dachau is truly breathtaking.
Readers of a nervous disposition should be warned that some passages are delightfully gruesome. The fate of Jürgen’s brother Eduard, who returns home from World War One with missing limbs, is simultaneously moving and grotesque. It’s he who whispers a secret into Paul’s ear from his sickbed, telling him that his long dead father didn’t die at sea, but was murdered. Paul’s quest to find out the truth about his enigmatic father and the nature of his death drives him like an obsession, worsening the older he gets.
The Traitor’s Emblem is a fantastic read that should appeal to a wide range of people. It’s extremely beautifully written, which more literate readers will enjoy. Whilst the thriller tends to be a genre favoured by men; the character of Alys is strongly written, and there’s a well-developed element of romance. The period setting and the intriguing mysteries should appeal equally to both sexes.
Thankfully, given that the market reached saturation point some years ago for the genre, there aren’t any elements of the supernatural in the story. Instead, The Traitor’s Emblem stands as a solid historical thriller. Highly recommended....more