Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Fatherland

Fatherland by Robert   Harris
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Robert Harris's 1992 Fatherland is a political thriller whose tension is clicked up a notch for being set is an alternate history of 1964 wherein Hitler won the war in Europe, and Germany rules over a Festung Europa bounded by vassal states to west and south, with a constant guerrilla war against the American-supported Red partisans simmering--its setbacks glossed over and its hushed-up casualties brought back by secret night trains--in the resettled lands of the Urals.

Xavier March, homicide detective for the Berlin Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo, is plagued with the classic failing of world-weary protagonists throughout the history of detective fiction: he is too inquisitive for his own good. Oh, he is a top-notch investigator, of course, but in his personal life he is far from the Party ideal--a Party which March, uninterested in totalizing ideologies, in promotions lost, or in the resulting sidelong glances of his colleagues, refuses to join. After serving as an aggressive young U-boat captain during the war, March drifted into the Kripo, where his restless mind might do some good. His marriage, whose fruitfulness should have been a duty to the Vaterland, has long since failed, and even ten-year-old Pili--Paul, his only child--knows that the comparative loner is an "asocial," a category only one step away from "traitor." With an honorary rank of Sturmbannfuhrer in the S.S. because of his profession, March most likely is the most sympathetic character ever to have worn the grim black uniform.

When his telephone rings at 6:15 a.m., the Sturmbannfuhrer has been lying, unable to sleep, listening to the rain, in his bed in a dingy apartment rented long ago by a Jewish family that somehow had disappeared without a trace. Rather than send the night duty officer on to his partner, the slovenly but amiable Max Jaeger, March is glad to take the case of the body found washed ashore on the muddy bank of Lake Havel--anything to fill the long, lonely hours of the dark morning, in which the mind otherwise might think.

This fat, well-fed body still clad in swim trunks, however, obviously is no mere vagrant. Indeed, March's discreet check of fingerprints proves that the man was a prominent alter Kampfer, an old fighter, or comrade from the very founding of the National Socialist German Workers Party; and while Josef Buhler's blood shows extreme intoxication, the former high official of the wartime occupation of Poland was a known teetotaler. And when furtive inquiry reveals that several other old colleagues of Buhler have died recently, many in conveniently random-seeming circumstances such as a hit-and-run traffic "accident," casual street crime, and the like...well, clearly something strange is going on.

A wiser officer of the Third Reich might shrug and chalk it up carefully to "accidental drowning," similar to the way that no one seems to know exactly where the Jews went after they were "resettled" in the East during the war. Not Zavi March, though. Doggedly he calls in favors, snoops through archives, conducts a little surreptitious breaking-and-entering at Buhler's estate after pretending not to have heard the radio message dismissing him from the case, and even ends up entangled with Charlie Maguire, the famous female journalist from America.

March's doggedness is admirable, but in the context of the literally murderous internecine intrigues of Nazi politics, it is a tad difficult to believe, just as it is difficult to believe that Herr Sturmbannfuhrer March simply would not have met with a handy accident or received a 9mm slug in the base of the brain one dark night. It is the thriller's necessity of the suspension of disbelief that for me reduces this gripping novel from a 5-star read to one of 4 or 4.5 stars; I confess that I also am a little put off by Harris's repeated use of the iconic Luger as police sidearm, for the elegant but outdated pistol was being replaced by the Walther P-38 from 1938 onward and never would have been in service in 1964--a minor thing, but an annoyance for certain students of history.

Such quibbles notwithstanding, Robert Harris's Fatherland is a fascinating, compelling read. Xavier March is suspicious, even privately contemptuous, of the Nazi Party, and hence is the perfect protagonist for a tale set in Berlin on the eve of the celebration of Hitler's seventy-fifth birthday, when the upcoming visit of American President Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., is about to bring detente to the nuclear-armed Cold War powers. This alternate world of 1964, wherein the Greater German Reich stands as the respected political, economic, and cultural center of Europe, able to establish solemn memorial museums to the millions killed in the Soviet gulags, is exquisitely ironic and believable. And the deeply buried secret that March and Charlotte Maguire uncover? It may be a bit anticlimactic now in our own history--which says something about the nature of reality, I suppose--but this truth should be shattering to any sane person, and it might even shake the foundations of the two most powerful nations in the world.
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Started Reading
December 26, 2015 – Finished Reading
January 9, 2016 – Shelved

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