Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

Map


Related links

Related reviews

History

Exhibitions

Camp memoirs

Fiction

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut (1979)

The most embarrassing thing to me about this autobiography, surely, is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me. (p.178)

This is Vonnegut’s ninth novel, published 27 years after his first, Player Piano (1952).

A hell of a lot had happened in those years – most of the 1950s, the entire 1960s and most of the 1970s – sex and drugs and rock and roll, the swinging sixties, hippies, glam rock, prog rock, punk – the Vietnam War with all its student protests segueing into the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement morphing into the Black Panthers and Black Power, the entire Space Age from Sputnik through the moon landings to the Space Shuttle, the oil crisis, Watergate and the discrediting of the American presidency.

Reading Vonnegut’s novels in sequence is like following him and his country on an enormous bender, and then waking up dazed and incredibly hungover the morning after.

A return to sobriety

That’s how reading Jailbird feels (at first, anyway). In comparison with the freaky experimentalism of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and of his most fragmented and experimental novel, Breakfast of Champions (1973) which comes complete with Vonnegut’s own illustrations – and unlike the knackered sci-fi of the dystopian novel Slapstick (1976), Jailbird seems like a return to sobriety and convention.

For example, unlike those three novels whose texts are split up into fragmented sections and paragraphs by asterisks or arrows, garnished with illustrations, packed with digressions, including the author’s speculations about his own characters – Jailbird is visually a return to convention, the prose arranged without gimmicks into consecutive paragraphs, themselves grouped into 23 normal-length chapters (unlike the page or half-page-long chapters of its predecessors). Jailbird looks like a normal book.

The long preface

And it does indeed turn out to be a much more conventional read, in tone, mood and style. This is signalled by the thirty-page preface.

Vonnegut hadn’t been shy of writing prefaces to his novels which, as the 60s turned into the 70s, had contained more and more personal, almost intimate, information (for example, about his mother’s suicide and his own depression).

In striking contrast to the ‘letting it all hang out’ approach of those introductions, the introduction to 1979’s Jailbird is strikingly serious and earnest. In tones close to that of a history book or journalistic feature, it recounts the story of the Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre, in which, in 1894, peaceful and mostly female protesters outside an iron works which had laid off their menfolk for rejecting a pay cut, were shot down by freelance ‘security men’ brought in from outside the state.

The link to the rest of the book is that one of the sons of the brutal Scottish immigrant who owned the iron works – Daniel McCone – who was, therefore, responsible for the massacre, is Alexander Hamilton McCone. Well-meaning and well educated Alexander had tried to intervene to break up the protest but is forced to watch the massacre take place, nonetheless.

This results in him withdrawing to live as a traumatised recluse cut off from society, from even his own wife and daughter, by an extreme stammer. His only company is a young boy, the son of the McCone family’s cook and chauffeur Walter F. Starbuck. In return for keeping him company, Alexander promises to send the lad to Harvard when he grows up.

And Jailbird turns out to be the story of Walter F. Starbuck’s life, as told by himself.

First person memoir

In this respect it is like the first-person memoirs which make up Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle and Slapstick. In all of these an ageing man (66 at the time of writing, p.47) looks back over his life from a current situation in which it is drawing to an end. Use of this retrospective point of view means the narrative can jump around from scene to scene, can set up expectations of the future, can signpost major incidents coming up numerous times before actually getting round to describing them.

And it leaves the narrator free to lard the text with his own comments, thoughts and interpretations, something Vonnegut was very inclined to do in those earlier books.

So this memoir or biography is being written by by Walter F. Starbuck.

Right on the first page he gives us the straightforward chronology of his life (just as he did the life of Billy Pilgrim on page one of Slaughterhouse-Five). He was born in 1913, went to Harvard in 1931, got his first government job in 1938. In 1945 he was sent to Germany ‘to oversee the feeding and housing of the American, British, French, and Russian delegations to the War Crimes Trials’ (p.51) and ends up spending four years in Germany.

In 1946 he married a Jewish translator he met in Germany and quickly had a son from whom he is estranged. In 1953 he was sacked from the federal government and ended up helping his wife with her interior decoration company throughout the 1960s. In 1970 he was offered a job in the Nixon White House, and in 1975 tried and convicted of involvement in the Watergate conspiracies, followed by early release from prison in 1977.

Somewhere in the blurbs for the book it says that this is Vonnegut’s Watergate novel but that is wildly misleading. That makes you think you’re going to be taken into the labyrinthine complexities of the Watergate conspiracies, meet the various bad guys in the Nixon administration, maybe there will be some thriller-style suspense and uncovering of new evidence.

Imagine how thrilling and exciting a write like Robert Harris would make a thriller about Watergate.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Jailbird is neither thrilling nor exciting, it is weird and – the temptation is to say ‘surreal’, but really it is nonsensical in the Edward Lear sense of putting nonsensical, non-sequitur and bizarre ideas together to see what effect they give.

RAMJAC Corps

Thus throughout the book we keep hearing that almost any company you can think of is being bought up by the huge and anonymous RAMJAC Corporation. It is only at the end of the book that we realise RAMJAC is run by one of Starbuck’s old girlfriends, in fact one of the only four women he’s ever loved, Mary Kathleen O’Looney. She lives as a bag lady on the streets of New York, wearing enormous black trainers in which she keeps all her legal documentation, and carrying six stuffed filthy bags around. She stinks, her hair is falling out and she is physically disgusting as Starbuck discovers the day after he is released from prison and a friend hails him in the street.

O’Looney hears his name, grabs hold of his hand, refuses to let go, and takes him down into her secret hideaway in a disused train station beneath Manhattan (to be precise, an abandoned locomotive repair shop beneath Grand Central Station). She reveals that she is the CEO of RAMJAC Corp and sends instructions by mail to the lawyer who administers her wishes under the pseudonym of Mrs Jack Graham. These are verified by including fingerprints of all her fingers and thumbs. This means that criminals who have learned about this system, try to kidnap her and cut off her hands in order to use the fingerprints to steal her money. This is not as paranoid as it sounds: one time she was staying in a hotel suite in Nicaragua waited on only by Mormons, the only people she trusts. She met a woman whose husband had just died of amoebic dysentry and put her up in her rooms, while she (Mary) went to make arrangements to ship the body home.

When she came back the Mormon had been murdered – and both her hands cut off and stolen (p.217).

In the couple of days after being released from prison Starbuck receives kindly treatment from a number of people – a prison guard, the chauffeur who brings him into Manhattan, a waiter at a restaurant, the owner of a deep fat frying joint, and so on.

Chatting to the disgusting, half-bald, filthy O’Looney he mentions their names only to have her straightaway write a letter to her executive lawyer, Arpad Leen, instructing that these eight people (including Starbuck himself) be immediately made Vice Presidents of various divisions of RAMJAC Corps, and that’s how the book ends, with a party attended by this random selection of eight guys who now find themselves executives in a massive American corporation.

Starbuck himself ends up as Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, along with Clyde Carter the prison guard, Cleveland Lawes the limousine driver, Dr Israel Edel the night clerk at the Arapahoe Hotel, Frank Ubriaco owner of the Coffee Shop who once deep-fat-fried his own hand when his expensive watch fell off into the fryer and on impulse he reached in to get it – all Vice presidents of one bit or another of the multinational corporation.

Hopefully, this summary of the RAMJAC/O’Looney thread of the novel shows you that this is not a book about Watergate, nor a thriller, nor really a conventional novel at all.

Satire or ridicule?

And it’s not really a satire on corporate America. A satire usually aims to undermine its target by making accurate, insightful hits on it. Inventing the idea that the most powerful corporation in America is run by a baglady hiding out in a derelict station under Manhattan isn’t really satirising corporate America, it is ridiculing it. This book – maybe all Vonnegut’s books – are less satires than ridicules.

In his view the whole world is so absurd and nonsensical that ridiculing it is the only rational response – including ridiculing the very idea of being a writer and writing novels (which is why I think I like Breakfast of Champions best of the seven novels I’ve read). There is no subtlety or insight to it.

I will say further, as an officer of an enormous international conglomerate, that nobody who is doing well in this economy ever even wonders what is really going on.
We are chimpanzees. We are orangutans. (p.123)

This is not satire. It is the despairing ridicule of a man who has given up trying to understand.

Watergate

The Watergate theme, such as it is, is limited to the following. Starbuck tells us that back in the 1950s he was called on to testify about communists in government. Before the famous House Un-American Activities Committee Starbuck lists a number of colleagues who he knows were communists in the 1930s buthave changed their views and present no threat to the American people. Among these he mistakenly includes a colleague named Leland Clewes. Clewes in fact had never been a communist and tries to clear his name.

Starbuck explains that the young assistant to Senator Joe McCarthy, one Richard Milhous Nixon, then spends two years hounding and investigating Clewes and eventually getting him convicted and sent to jail. This drew Nixon into the public eye. In a roundabout way, then, Starbuck takes the blame for having made Nixon’s career. This is why, a long time later, Starbuck finds himself offered a job at the Nixon White House. Nixon one day remembered his name, asked his aides what Starbuck was doing, wondered if he’d accept a lowly job.

This nothing job is ‘President’s special advisor on youth affairs’ (p.46). Starbuck was given a windowless room in the basement of the White House (‘a sub-basement in the Executive Office Building’), from where he churned out some 200 reports over five years about youth activities, none of which were ever read by anyone. Salary: $36,000 pa.

Starbuck’s sole connection with any of the Watergate conspiracy was twofold. Throughout his time there he could hear people stomping about upstairs. One day he coughed loudly and immediately there was a rumpus down the stairs and a couple of senior staffers burst in demanding to know whether he’d been listening in on their conversations. They then tested the soundproofing, with one of them shouting and swearing upstairs, while another one stood in Starbuck’s office until he was satisfied that even shouting didn’t travel through the floorboards and he could never have heard anything.

And then, in 1975, when police came to search the White House, some of the guilty staffers came rushing downstairs with several crates packed with cash. These were illegal donations to Nixon’s re-election campaign, which they thought they could stash in Starbuck’s out-of-the-way office. But the cops searched even down here, found it, arrested Starbuck, and that was what he was tried and convicted and sent to gaol for, conspiracy to hide, defraud, illegal contributions etc.

So you see, the book offers little or no insight into Watergate or Nixon, or the intricacies of the conspiracy (there is one scene where Starbuck attends a meeting of the entire cabinet, seated far away, the lowest of the low, and chain smoking so much that Nixon makes a joke about him – that is Starbuck’s one and only encounter and anecdote about Nixon pp.61-62. He takes the opportunity to name a number of the men around the table who would end up in prison. But it isn’t an insight or exploration or explanation of the Nixon White House. It is one joke and a list of names).

It’s more as if Starbuck is an innocent bystander, an inoffensive drone right on the periphery of the administration who gets sent to prison because the bad guys stashed some hot money in his office and he was too dutiful to reveal their names. This could have been the basis of a comedy if the rest of the book wasn’t so weird and nonsensical, and about so much else.

Ruth

For example, there is much more about is wife Ruth, her history, how they met and their life together, than there is about politics. Jewish, Ruth had been hidden for the first part of the war, but then discovered and sent to a concentration camp which she survived to be liberated by the Americans and Starbuck met her only hours after they had been requisitioned by an American army unit which needed a translator at a checkpoint. Starbuck himself requisitioned her, took her to a good hotel, fed her up, and employed her as a translator for his work with the War Trials. He takes ten or so pages to describe their work in some detail, to paint a picture of her earnest pessimism, and the determination with which she sets up an interior design company once they return to American in 1949.

Kilgore Trout

Trout was, by this stage, a well known recurrent figure in Vonnegut’s fiction, maybe his most eminent creation, having appeared in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five. In Champions he is one of the two major protagonists and we learn a lot about his life. He is definitely a ‘real person’. So it comes as a surprise in Jailbird to learn that Trout is in fact one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves his two year sentence, in fact the only ‘lifer’ in the Federal Minimum Security Adult Correctional Facility near Finletter Air Force Base, Georgia. His real name is Dr Robert Fender and he has a doctorate is in veterinary science. While in prison, Fender also writes science fiction novels under another pseudonym, Frank X. Barlow (p.67).

I have seen the way Trout’s character changes in different novels as an example of Vonnegut’s use of ‘unreliable narrators’, but I think it’s far bigger than that. If we agree that Vonnegut’s strategy goes far beyond ‘satire’ into the realm I’ve described as ‘ridicule’, then Jailbird‘s revealing that Kilgore Trout in fact doesn’t exist, is another example of Vonnegut’s full-spectrum ridiculing of all stable and sensible ideas about fiction. It is an example of his ‘nonsense’ approach to fiction.

One strategy Vonnegut retains from earlier books, especially Breakfast of Champions, is that the narrator summarises entire novels or stories by Trout. The result is that, instead of having to read an entire trout novel, you can simply read the narrator’s one or two-page summary which are much zippier, funnier or wackier.

There are other echoes of earlier techniques as well. You know I said that Jailbird looks more conventional in the sense that the prose is arranged into consecutive paragraphs and the chapters are a sensible length (unlike all three of his previous novels). Yes, but he redeploys the catchphrase. In Slaughterhouse many paragraphs or anecdotes ended with the phrase ‘So it goes’. Here it is ‘And so on’. Similarly, it doesn’t happen often, but every now and then Vonnegut just inserts a one-word paragraph saying ‘Peace’. Just to remind us that the same wacky nonsensicalist of the earlier experimental books is still there, lurking.

And the spirit of the nonsensicalist emerges more and more as the book progresses. There is an extended description of the night in 1931 he took the ‘Yankee clock heiress’ Sarah Wyatt to dinner at the swanky Hotel Arapahoe in Manhattan. Partly because he remembers it all when, having just been released from prison in 1977, Starbuck returns to the same hotel to see it much reduced, shabby and dingy and half boarded up. In fact, the receptionist tells him, the entire area where the restaurant used to be has been converted into a porn movie cinema which specialises in gay porn, many of the movies climaxing with scenes of anal fisting, something which, unsurprisingly, shocks and horrifies the narrator (p.130).

When he expresses an opinion, Starbuck just sounds dazed at what his country has come to.

Mary Kathleen O’Looney wasn’t the only shopping-bag lady in the United States of America. There were tens of thousands of them in major cities throughout the country. Ragged regiments of them had been produced accidentally, and to imaginable purpose, by the great engine of the economy. Another part of the machine was spitting out unrepentant murderers ten years old, and dope fiends, and child batterers and many other bad things. People claimed to be investigating. Unspecified repairs were to be made at some future time. (p.151)

Sacco and Vanzetti

He’s obviously been thinking, or reading, about the celebrated case of the Italian-born American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who were controversially convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during the April 15, 1920 armed robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts. They were both executed in the electric chair just after midnight on August 23, 1927.

Vonnegut refers to them in the preface to the book, and the preface ends with a quote from Nicola Sacco writing to his 13-year-old son Dante, a quote which went on to be turned into a song, and rallying cry for the Socialist cause in America.

Help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because they are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.

Towards the end of the book, the narrative stops altogether while Vonnegut gives an extended summary of the events surrounding the supposed crimes, trial and execution of the pair. This chimes with the fact that Starbuck, although a Harvard man, was himself a student activist, and an actual member of the communist party.

This is par for the course in Vonnegut’s novels all of which contain large chunks of random subject matter thrown in from all sides. It’s part of what makes them surprisingly chewy and dense.

But it’s difficult to reconcile this apparent earnestness about Sacco and Vanzetti and the anarchist / socialist cause – the totally straight description of the 1894 Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre (fictional, although based on similar worker killings which took place around that time), and descriptions of Starbuck’s own student activism (it was while editing a communist student paper at Harvard that he first met the beautiful and idealistic Mary Kathleen O’Toole) — with the helpless nonsensicality of the main plot i.e. the way a ruined baglady turns out to be running the largest corporation in America. It doesn’t cohere. It’a as if they’re from different worlds – the serious, and the utterly nonsensical.

The nonsense is entertaining and sometimes funny but the trouble is it makes all his ‘serious’ criticisms of America or war or capitalism tremendously easy to ignore, take with a pinch of salt, and dismiss.

Epilogue

In the epilogue Starbuck describes how, soon after being made Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, he goes to see Mary Kathleen O’Looney in her secret base under grand Central Station and discovers her in a very poor way. In fact she dies in his arms. The epilogue then describes how Starbuck disposes of her body secretly and doesn’t tell anyone. RAMJAC Corporation continues for another two years before the discovery of its CEO’s demise is finally made. At which point Starbuck is taken to court once again, and convicted of not reporting her death, fraud etc.

The book ends with a party given for him by all the other vice-presidents, which has the effect of tying up any loose strands of the ‘plot’, before he is scheduled to be sent back to the slammer. And that is the story of this inveterate jailbird.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

This was Vonnegut’s sixth novel and his commercial and critical breakthrough, quickly becoming a classic of counter-culture literature, its anti-war message chiming perfectly with the widespread protests across America against the Vietnam War, and then given an extra boost when it was made into a hit movie in 1972.

Both the anti-war message and Vonnegut’s laid-back, sardonic attitude are captured in the book’s jokey author biography:

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
A fourth-generation German-American
now living in easy circumstances
on Cape Cod
[and smoking too much],
who, as an American infantry scout
hors de combat,
as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany,
‘The Florence of the Elbe,’
a long time ago,
and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel
somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic
manner of tales
of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers
come from.
Peace.

That final ‘Peace’ says it all. You can almost smell the dope and patchouli oil.

Vonnegut was an American POW during the Second World War. He was taken to Dresden and set to work along with other POWs – among other things in a syrup factory – and so happened to be there during the notorious Allied bombing raid which flattened this beautiful and historic city on the night of 13 February 1945.

Vonnegut survived because he and other POWs had been billeted in a disused slaughterhouse. This happened to have no fewer than three levels underground of natural cold rooms where meat had been stored. Vonnegut, fellow POWs and their guards took refuge there on the night of the Allied raid and firestorm.

Vonnegut gives this experience and much else of his own life to the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, but mixes it – bewilderingly but powerfully – with a science fiction story wherein Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. And with a third element – which is that during the war Billy came ‘unstuck in time’ and from then on, periodically through the rest of his life, Billy’s consciousness keeps moving between different key moments of his life – one moment a POW captured in the snow in 1944, the next making a speech to fellow Lion’s Club members in 1967, one moment a boy of 12 taken to the Grand Canyon by his parents, the next a middle-aged man at his daughter’s wedding, and so on, for a number of other cardinal scenes in his life.

The text therefore mostly consists of fragments, any lengthy description of a particular scene liable to switch, with no warning, to another.

The odd thing is that despite this staginess, this artifice – it works. In fact it works more effectively than any straightforward account of the facts could have.

Even despite the opening chapter (pp.9-22) which consists mainly of fragments describing Vonnegut’s repeated failure to write this book. In these introductory pages he describes his visits to fellow war veterans and how, after a few drinks, they found they had nothing to say to each other. He candidly admits that, as a middle-aged man, he has gotten into the habit of staying up to late with a bottle of scotch, getting drunk and then ringing up old friends and acquaintances from the past, sometimes maundering on to complete strangers.

In other words, he sounds fucked. But it’s the inclusion of the admission of his failure to make his traumatic memories cohere, and his openness about the obvious emotional toll they’ve taken on him, which make the narrative which follows, deeply fragmented though it is, all the more powerful.

Billy’s biography

Despite all the apparent tricksiness, it is not too difficult to piece together Billy’s biography, in fact Vonnegut summarises most of it right at the start of chapter two, which is where the narrative proper begins.

Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. (p23)

Vonnegut likes short declarative sentences. And short paragraphs. He worked on newspapers for a while. Then as a press officer. Which taught him to keep it short. And snappy.

Bill Pilgrim was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, the only son of a barber. He grew up to be tall and gangly, looking like a Coke bottle. He attended the Ilium school of optometry for one term before being drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner during the German advance of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). There is an extended sequence describing his miserable march through the snow with two scouts and an aggressive bullying corporal named Roland Weary. The scouts eventually leave them and, a little later, they hear them being shot by a German patrol. So it goes.

He and hundreds of other American POWs were transported by overcrowded trains to a POW camp. The bully who gave him such a time on the march, Roland Weary, dies on the train. The base is really an extermination camp for Russian soldiers who were being starved to death. Within this camp was a small number of British officers who’d been captured at the start of the war and were living very well on Red Cross parcels. After various incidents here (such as witnessing the British stage a production of Cinderella). Billy starts laughing at this, the laugh becomes uncontrollable and turns into a shriek. They give him a shot of morphine. So it goes.

Then he is shipped to Dresden where he is billeted in a disused slaughterhouse and set to various labouring jobs, clearing rubble, and helping out in a syrup factory (where everyone steals as much syrup as they can eat).

One night 600 Allied bombers come and destroy Dresden, sparking a firestorm which incinerates everyone above ground. When Billy and the Germans emerge they discover the entire city reduced to smoking rubble littered with what seem planks of burning wood but are, in fact, smouldering corpses. So it goes.

Billy is liberated by the Russians, repatriated to Allied lines, and then back to the States. He re-enrols in the Ilium School of Optometry and becomes engaged to Valencia, the fat, ugly daughter of the founder of the school, who is addicted to eating candy bars and cries on their wedding night because she thought no-one would ever marry her.

In 1948 Billy suffers a mental breakdown and checks himself into a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans’ hospital near Lake Placid, New York.

Here he meets a character mentioned in previous novels, namely Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the works of a prolific science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (who will be one of the two main figures in Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions). Later on, in 1964, Billy bumps into Trout, as he tyrannises the pack of newspaper boys who he bullies into delivering papers, his only form of income since nobody will publish his numerous novels and, even if they do, Trout never sees any money from them. Rosewater has a big trunk of Trout’s sci-fi novels under his bed and during his stay in the hospital, Billy becomes a big fan.

Then he checks out and resumes his career as an optometrist. Marrying the boss’s fat daughter was a shrewd career move. His father-in-law gifts him a successful optometrist’s practice and Billy goes from strength to strength. He gets rich. He has two children, Barbara and Robert. Barbara marries an optometrist. Robert has a troubled school career (alcoholic at 16, desecrates graveyards) but turns his life round when he joins the Marines and goes to Vietnam.

In 1964 Billy meets Kilgore Trout and invites him to a party of optometrists. Trout chats up the most sensationally sexy woman in the room. When, in his excitement, he coughs on a canape, fragments of wet food land in her cleavage. Trout is that kind of character. Vonnegut is that kind of writer. Billy had planned to give his wife a big jewel as a wedding anniversary present, but is overcome with memories.

In 1967 Billy claims he was kidnapped by Tralfamodorians and taken to their planet in a flying saucer, where he was put in a zoo for the entertainment of Tralfamadorian crowds, and was soon joined by former movie star Montana Wildhack. Billy is laid back about the experience. He’s seen worse. He’s seen nearly the worst that human beings can do to each other. But Montana is hysterical for the first few weeks. Eventually they settle down together in their cage and mate, much to the cheers of the Tralfamadorian crowds.

In 1968 Billy is aboard a planeload of optometrists flying to a convention which crashes into Sugarloaf Mountain, Vermont. Billy is the only survivor. His wife, Valencia, in her worry, drives to the hospital but at one stage hits the central reservation, scraping the exhaust off the car. By the time she gets to the hospital where Billy is she is suffering from a fatal dose of carbon monoxide poisoning, and dies. So it goes.

After getting out of the hospital Billy goes to New York City where he gets airtime on a radio station telling everyone about how he was kidnapped by aliens from outer space and kept in a zoo. His grown-up daughter, Barbara, is furious and insists on coming to look after him (which feels a lot to Billy like nagging, hectoring bullying).

Billy is killed on 13 February 1976. Remember the soldier who died on the train, Roland Weary. Well another soldier, a really unpleasant psychopath named Paul Lazzarro, gives Weary his word of honour that he’ll take care of the dirty rotten fink who Weary blames for his death – the entirely innocent Billy.

And so it is that in 1976 that same Paul Lazzaro assassinates Billy using a laser gun with telescopic sights, while Billy is addressing a big rally about his flying saucer experiences. So it goes.

(It’s worth noting that, in a few throwaway sentences, Vonnegut tells us that by 1976 the USA has been divided into twenty smaller nations ‘so that it will never again be a threat to world peace’. Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen, p.96. This is not intended as any kind of prediction, it just continues the vein of pointless absurdity.)

POW

Central to the impact of the book is the powerful account of being taken prisoner, packed into cattle trucks so full people take it in turns to lie down, for days surrounded by the smells of poo and piss, and then arriving at the death camp more dead than alive. The surrealism of the brisk well-fed British officers among the starving Russians (kept in a separate area, behind barbed wire) and then onto the detailed, first hand account of a) labouring in Dresden in the build-up and then b) the night of the firestorm and then c) the aftermath.

These scenes, in their winter misery, reminded me of concentration camp memoirs I’ve read:

They also account in a roundabout way for the comment Vonnegut makes about the nature of his own book (he is prone to stop and comment on the text at random moments.)

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters. (p.110)

This fictional worldview, or attitude towards fiction, is related to the way Vonnegut repeatedly refers to people as machines. All the inhabitants of Tralfamadore are machines and don’t understand why the inhabitants of planet Earth won’t just accept this simple truth.

Tralfamadore

From the start of his career Vonnegut played the textual/fictional joke of having characters from one novel reappear in others.

Thus the town Billy’s born in, Ilium, is the setting for the first part of the novel Cat’s Cradle as is its General Forge and Foundry Company.

In hospital Billy is put in a bed next to Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord of Harvard, official Historian of the United States Air Force. This is a coincidence because the main character and master of destiny in The Sirens of Titan is Winston Niles Rumfoord.

The biggest recurring topic is the planet named Tralfamadore (which appears in five of Vonnegut’s novels). Anyone who’s read The Sirens of Titan knows that, on one level, it is all about a denizen of Tralfamadore marooned on Titan after his spaceship breaks down, and that all of human history (in this version, anyway) has in fact been shaped entirely by his home planet sending messages to him.

In Slaughterhouse-Five we learn that Tramalfadorians are:

two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.

So far, so frivolous and silly. But the biggest thing Billy learns from the Tramalfadorians is that:

’The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’

Various other aspects and quirks of Tralfamadorian life and thought are made up for our amusement (such as that the Tralfamadorians have five sexes, all of which are required for successful reproduction). But this is the key one. They explain a) how all moments of time exist simultaneously so b) that is why Billy can slip between them so easily and c) that’s why it doesn’t matter. Which brings us to ‘so it goes’.

So it goes

The book popularised Vonnegut’s catch-phrase, ‘so it goes’.

The author writes this every time he describes anyone dying, either in the war or by accident or of old age. It appears several times on each page, and 99 times in the whole (relatively short) book. Once upon a time it was cool but I eventually found it irritating and distracting.

But on the same page as he explains the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about, and seeing, time, he also explains the phrase’s origin:

‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”’

So this phrase ‘so it goes’ turns out to have more philosophical (or theological) than first appears. It indicates why the Tralfamadorians are relaxed about death – because it is only one stage in a person’s existence, and all the other stages of his or her existence continue unaffected by their death. And so it indicates how the author, too, has adopted this point of view.

That’s the nominal aim. But having read the first chapter in which Vonnegut describes the psychological problems he had writing this book – plus the scenes of Billy Pilgrim in the mental hospital – it’s difficult not to read the entire ‘so it goes’, throwaway kind of levity as in fact a form of psychological defence mechanism.

As he describes atrocities, random deaths, cruel accidents, suicides, immolations, plane crashes and the endless dumb pointlessness of the world, it’s hard not to see the ‘so it goes’ mentality as the coping mechanisms of a very unhappy man.

Folk wisdom

Vonnegut is addicted to sharing his wisdom with us. He is in the line of what Saul Bellow described as ‘reality instructors’, a line which goes back to Thoreau and beyond.

All Vonnegut’s novels are designed to persuade us that there is no meaning to life… and it doesn’t matter.

The same thing is said time and again. Thus a German guard punches an American POW, knocking him to the ground. The American asks: ‘Why me?’ The German guard replies: ‘Vy you? Vy anybody?’

Similarly, when the Tralfamadorians abduct him, Billy asks them: ‘Why me?’ to which they reply that they are all of them just embedded in this moment of time, like a prehistoric ant embalmed in amber.

‘There is no why?’ ‘Why?’ is the wrong question to be asking.

You can see why this Zen-like sidestepping of the anxious questions of Western philosophy appealed to the 60s generation, the spirit that made Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance such an instant best seller when it was published in 1974.

But pretty often it sounds no different from homespun folk wisdom, with no particular secret or mystique about it. Here’s Billy chatting with a Tramalfadorian:

‘But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
‘Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments – like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’

‘Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’ Not a dazzling revelation, is it? But then the thing about living wisely – as of eating a healthy diet – is everyone knows what they ought to be doing, it’s just that most people can’t or won’t or don’t do it.

Vivid writing

Notwithstanding that Vonnegut’s baseline style is the crisp brevity of newspaper journalism, he routinely comes up with great lines, descriptions and verbal effects.

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

This description is charged by the fact that Billy is himself lying in a hospital bed, too weak to get out.

Elsewhere Vonnegut nails aspects of his society and times with an accuracy made all the more lethal by the calm simplicity of his phrasing.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Set pieces

And like the other Vonnegut novels I’ve read, it is just crammed full of stuff. Characters, events, insights, jokes, wisdom, the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations.

While he is in the prison camp Billy meets an American traitor, Howard W. Campbell Jnr who is trying to raise an American Nazi regiment to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Obviously he’s a traitor Fascist, but he is not stupid and Billy reads the lengthy monograph Campbell has written which is a cunning blend of truths and falsehoods about the American character, and which allows Vonnegut to slip in some pretty bitter home truths:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor… Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.

In a different mode, there is an impressive writerly tour de force where Billy has a vision of the bombing of Dresden happening in reverse, with miraculous old buildings rising from a rubble-strewn wasteland, friendly planes flying over hoovering up all those nasty bombs, flying back to England in pretty poor shape but, luckily, fleets of fighter planes meet them and suck out all the bullets and flak so that they finally land back at their airfields in pristine condition, and everyone is happy!

Shell shocked prose

But the most consistent style or tone is shell-shocked numbness. The author tells things in sequence like a zombie. Zombie prose. Then this then this then this.

Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines. Three other wanderers, not quite so dazed, allowed Billy to tag along. Two of them were scouts, and one was an antitank gunner. They were without food or maps. Avoiding Germans they were delivering themselves into rural silences ever more profound. They ate snow.

Dazed wanderer prose. Sometimes, when applied to actual combat, to soldiers shooting each other or planes dropping bombs, you can see how describing things in this simpleton, child’s eye way, is designed to undermine the army press release, conventional ways of seeing atrocities. To force us to realise that ‘combat’ means one bunch of men trying to send bits of metal at high velocity through other men’s bodies.

But at other moments this numb, dumb, dazed, zombie prose seems to me to convey nothing more than shell shock. Mental disturbance. An inability to function which isn’t glamorous or counter-cultural, but masks deep pain and unhappiness.

As a part of a gun crew, [Weary] had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.

Telling what happened with no emotion, affect or intellectual intervention, no defences, no assimilation. The wound still red raw and gaping.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Vonnegut suffered from chronic depression, and within a few years of Slaughterhouse being published, a difficult break-up with his wife and his son’s mental collapse prompted him to start taking anti-depressants. In 1984 he tried to commit suicide. I think you can hear not only Vonnegut’s war-torn past, but also his troubled future, in the prose of Slaughterhouse-Five.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (1962)

‘People should be changed by world wars,’ I said, ‘else, what are world wars for?’ (p.86)

Mother Night purports to be the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr., born 1912 (p.17) who goes to Germany in 1923, along with his family when his dad gets a job with the Berlin branch of General Electric (p.18) and so grows up fluent in German.

The three-page introduction by Vonnegut uses the hokey old strategy of claiming that the author is merely presenting the authentic papers of a genuine historical figure, which he has edited and corrected in various detail. This is both designed to give hokey plausibility to the narrative’s provenance while drawing attention to its artificiality. Just one of the numerous meta-fictional devices Vonnegut uses here and throughout his career.

Howard W. Campbell Jnr

The main text starts bluntly enough and very much in the tradition of much 19th century fiction

My name is Howard W. Campbell Jnr. I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination. (p.3)

As he came of age in Nazi Germany (he turns 21 in 1933, the year Hitler comes to power) Campbell set out to make a living as a writer, producing so-so plays and poems throughout the 1930s and marrying a German wife, the actress Helga Noth, daughter of Berlin’s Chief of Police. The glamorous young couple find themselves invited to society parties and so meeting, among others, many of the leaders of the Nazi Party, notably Joseph Goebbels.

The text purports to be a memoir written in 1961 in prison in Israel where Campbell has recently been brought after living quietly in Greenwich Village, New York since the end of the war, because Howard W. Campbell Jr.’s main achievement in life was to become a traitor to his country and a war criminal by broadcasting hard core, anti-Semitic, anti-American Nazi propaganda from Berlin right till the end of the war. Although we are not told till the end of the book how he ended up there, he is now in the custody of the Israeli authorities who are about to put him on trial for war crimes.

The memoir uses Vonnegut’s familiar approach of not giving a chronological approach to Campbell’s life, but ranging far and wide over his former life, to pick out key moments and scenes. Thus, in what is effectively a series of fragments, we learn that:

In Israel

  • Campbell is writing the memoir for Mr Tuvia Friedmann, Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals.
  • He describes the characters of the four very different Israeli guards who do the different shifts of guarding him – Andor Gutman who spent two years in Auschwitz, Arpad Kovacs who survived the war by pretending to be a good Aryan and joining the SS.

In Nazi Germany

  • It was Campbell who introduced Goebbels – and through him, Hitler – to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
  • Half way through the war Helga was entertaining the German troops in the Crimea when the Crimea is overrun by the Russians. She was never heard from again, presumed dead.
  • Towards the end of the war Campbell borrowed the beloved motorbike of his best friend Heinz Schildknecht and went to visit his father-in-law, Werner Noth, in his big house on the outskirts of Berlin. Werner was having all the contents loaded on a cart and sent with his wife and other daughter, 10-year-old Resi, to Cologne. Werner asks Campbell to shoot the family dog, which Campbell did. 10-year-old Resi says she loves him (Campbell). Fine. He gets on his motorbike and tries to escape the advancing Russians.
  • In 1945 Campbell was captured by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army who drives him to the nearby and newly-liberated concentration camp of Ohrdruf, where he is photographed in front of the camp gallows (now full of former camp guards), a photo which makes the front cover of Life magazine and makes Campbell notorious.

In New York

  • Campbell is released by the American authorities and goes to live in New York. His mother and father had gone back to America just before war broke out, but they both die within 24 hours of each other of heart disease before the end of the war, and Howard has inherited their fortune.
  • Campbell’s downstairs neighbour in Greenwich Village is a young doctor named Abraham Epstein; he doesn’t care about the war, but his mother was in Auschwitz and recognises Campbell, who plays dumb.
  • In his loneliness, Campbell gets to know another neighbour, George Kraft, by playing chess with him. Little does he know that Kraft is in fact a Russian spy, real name Colonel Iona Potapov.
  • The beginning of the end comes when Campbell finds his mailbox stuffed with neo-Nazi literature, namely The White Christian Minuteman edited by the reverend Lionel L.D. Jones, D.D.S.
  • There’s also a letter from the American soldier who arrested him 16 years earlier, Bernard B. O’Hare, who threatens to pay him a visit and administer the punishment he so richly deserves.
  • How did they track him down? Kraft, the Russian spy. Over the months Campbell got to trust him and spill parts of his story. It was Kraft who contacted the neo-Nazis and O’Hare. Why? In order to force him to flee, so that he can be kidnapped by Russian security forces (see below).
  • Dr Jones comes to visit along with a couple of other American Nazis and… to Campbell’s amazement, his long-lost wife Helga. He gets rid of the others and he and Helga have riotous sex, just like back in the good times in Berlin. It’s only when he takes Helga shopping for a king-sized double bed like the one they used to have, that she drops the bombshell that she is not Helga – she is the kid sister, Resi, all grown up 🙂

Throughout the memoir Campbell claims he is innocent. He claims he was recruited for American intelligence by a Major Frank Wirtanen, who taught him how to leave pauses, gaps, coughs etc during his radio broadcasts, which conveyed valuable information to the American intelligence.

Trouble is the American government now (1961) refuses to confirm or deny Campbell’s story, and there are no records anywhere of this Major Wirtanen.

The deeper trouble is that Campbell himself is torn by his schizophrenia. Although he may have been an American agent he did, nonetheless, say those things over the radio. In his memoir he damns himself even more by pointing out various anti-Semitic ideas and pictures which he also contributed to the Nazi cause. He has no doubt that he was guilty of doing those things. Although he is also certain he was working for the Americans.

A book of two halves

Mother Night represents a drastic change from the mind-bending science fiction of The Sirens of Titan, coming freighted, as it does, with a lot of historical research, and a feel for the German language and German society (presumably drawing on the fact that Vonnegut himself was of German stock).

When the story is close to the Nazis and wartime Europe it is interesting. When it is more about the eccentric neo-Nazis in modern New York it feels like bubblegum comedy, like an early draft for Mel Brooks’s gross-out comedy, The Producers (‘Springtime for Hitler and Germany’).

The tone changes significantly and, in my opinion, for the worse, after Campbell is confronted and beaten up by an American soldier as he returns to his apartment building from that bed shopping trip with Resi, now that his identity is out. He is beaten to the ground and kicked in the head and loses consciousness.

When he wakes up it is in the house of Dr Jones, in the company of Kraft the Russian spy, along with some other grotesques, Father Keeley, a Catholic priest and Fascist, and the improbable figure of the ‘black Führer of Harlem’.

Somehow the book has turned into something like an episode of the Man from U.N.C.L.E., utterly implausible and unserious. When he was describing Campbell’s brief meeting with Dr Goebbels he was, I think, on his best behaviour. It is slyly satirical (the idea that Hitler would actually admire the Gettysburg Address) but at bottom serious.

Now it feels like an episode of Scooby-Doo with brightly coloured cartoon characters running round abandoned buildings.

Jones and Kraft tell him they’ve got a plan which is to abandon America completely and all fly to Mexico City.

In a farcical scene they invite Campbell to address a cohort of six-foot blonde American boys who have formed ‘the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution’.

Campbell is giving a little speech from the stage in the basement of the building when the lights go down and he is disconcerted to hear one of his own wartime broadcasts being played (which gives us, the readers, an opportunity to savour his anti-Semitic Nazi rhetoric in full).

While the lights are down someone slips a message into Campbell’s pocket. Later he sneaks a look and it is a message from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen to come meet him in a shop opposite.

Campbell makes his excuses for going for a stroll and suspiciously approaches the shutdown shop opposite but Wirtanen is waiting for him, alone and unarmed.

Here Wirtanen informs him the Kraft is a Russian spy and so is Resi. They will all fly to Mexico City where Campbell will immediately be kidnapped and flown to Moscow. Why? So the Soviets can try a high-profile war criminal and show how such criminals are allowed to live freely in the West.

Wirtanen warns Campbell that the safe house they’re all in is about to be raided. Back on the street, Campbell realises he has nowhere else to go and so walks back to the house. Here he confronts Resi and Kraft with their plan which they immediately admit – at which point American FBI agents burst in.

Now, John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was published just a year after Mother Night and even a moment’s mental comparison shows you that Vonnegut is not really interested in being serious. He is not interested in plot or suspense or dramatic climaxes.

If you call to mind the fiendish elaborateness of Carré’s plot and the depth of psychological duelling which it describes, and behind it all the sense of something really important at stake i.e. the survival of a high level Western spy in the East German security machine – it throws Vonnegut’s bubble gum cartoon into vivid relief.

There is nothing remotely like that here.

The entire idea that Campbell was somehow transmitting secrets in his Nazi broadcasts is nonsense. Via a set of coughs and pauses? Rubbish. Vonnegut makes a half-arsed attempt to clarify it by having Wirtanen say that no fewer than seven women agents died getting him the information, but we never understand how that information reached Campbell or how it was codified into this nonsensical idea of coughs and pauses. He himself never explains how it was done, how he met these ‘agents’, how he turned their messages into code, the difficulty of staging the alleged coughs and pauses. It’s rubbish, a flimsy pretext.

When Campbell tells Resi that he knows she is a Russian spy she makes a rubbish speech about how she really, genuinely loves him and had asked Kraft to change the plan to protect him. But now she sees his love is dead she has no reason to go on living. So she takes a cyanide pill and collapses dead in his arms.

This isn’t serious. It is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The novel dissolves into fragments. While the others are arrested and taken away, Campbell, on Wirtanen’s permission is released.

He doesn’t know where to go and only a cop asking him to move along prompts him to drift back to his old apartment building. This has been trashed by various American patriots.

Campbell has a disconnected conversation with another cop, who tells him his own father was killed at Iwo Jima and how he reckons it’s all to do with chemicals in the brain, which affect our moods, can make us feel up or down, and maybe explain the different behaviour of different cultures. It’s call chemicals (a subject to be developed at length in Vonnegut’s later novel, Breakfast of Champions).

Upstairs in the ruins of his apartment (comprehensively trashed by American patriots once news about who he was has spread) Campbell is confronted by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army. He is drink but has dressed very correctly in uniform as he thinks he is fulfilling the military duty of killing Campbell which he should have performed 15 years earlier.

Vonnegut gives a good little cameo to O’Hare, having him admit how disappointing post-war life has been with his wife producing baby after baby and all his business plans coming to nothing. Vonnegut makes us see how O’Hare hopes to redeem all his failures in life and business by beating up Campbell, maybe killing him. But O’Hare is out of shape and drunk. As he lunges towards Campbell, our man beats down hard with a pair of fire tongs and breaks his arm. After some ineffective dodging and weaving Campbell forces O’Hare out into the hall where the latter copiously throws up, then staggers back down the stairs.

Campbell stands there, his life reduced to ashes. No wife, no lover, no friends, no cause, no help, and the entire country against him.

He has a brainwave and goes and hands himself into his young neighbour Abraham Epstein. Except it’s by now quite late at night and Epstein doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t care. Campbell insists he wants to hand himself over to the Israeli authorities. Epstein replies, well go along to the embassy tomorrow. But Campbell wants something decisive to happen now.

I suppose this is farcical but it didn’t strike me as very funny. Eventually Epstein’s mother phones three Jewish men friends who turn up and keep ‘guard’ on Campbell till the morning. She understands his need to confess, to come clean and for someone else simply to take over his life.

Suicide

And so the final pages cut to Campbell in the Israeli prison. There is a comic recap of the various witnesses for and against him, plus his lawyer who, like all lawyers, is costing him a fortune. He wakes up and has got three letters, two of them farcical (one from a company called Creative Playthings wanting his financial support).

But the third is from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen who says he does exist, he did work for the American army, Campbell really worked for him and is an American patriot, and he will say so in court under oath.

Campbell looks up from the letter.

So I am about to be a free man again, to wander where I please.
I find the prospect nauseating.

And so in the remaining seven pages of the book, he decides he will hang himself for crimes against himself. The book’s last words are:

Goodbye cruel world.
Auf wiedersehen?

By this stage I had completely stopped taking Campbell or his fate seriously.

Thoughts

1. Vonnegut’s wisdom

As the 1960s went on Vonnegut gave in more and more to the temptation to lard his books with insights and wisdom and sayings. In this, his third novel, this tendency is mostly reined in, though various morals and meanings and precepts and proverbs about life and the world still slip through:

Oh, God – the lives people try to lead.
Oh, God – what a world they try to lead them in!

In the preface he tells us that ‘the moral of the story’ is:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Although it might also be:

When you’re dead you’re dead.

And another one springs to mind:

Make love when you can. It’s good for you.

This tendency to buttonhole us with his folksy wisdom – and not to be able to stop – was to run riot through his books as the 1960s progressed.

2. The Nazis and leading a double life

As to any serious thoughts about the Nazis, or Eichmann, or the nature of evil, or patriotism, and the separate theme of living a double life, epitomised by the figure of ‘the spy’ – Mother Night prompts none. It is a kind of comic fantasia without thoughts or consequences.

There are serious books on these subjects and if you seriously want to understand them, you should read those.

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

3. Eichmann

The main thing it left me thinking was this: at one stage Campbell says he is being kept in the same prison as Adolf Eichmann, and several times they have brief conversations, in which Eichmann comes over as calm and serene.

Now Eichmann had been kidnapped in Argentina by the Israeli secret service Mossad, and was brought back to Jerusalem to undergo a very high-profile trial, before being found guilty and hanged in 1 June 1962.

The trial was widely followed in the media and was later the subject of several books, including Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann. (Wikipedia)

Serious commentators around the world, politicians and philosophers, were writing long earnest articles about the Eichmann trial. I’d love to know how many of them even noticed this half-comic novel by a little-known American novelist, and what – given the seriousness of the issues being discussed – any of them thought of his rather shallow, comical treatment of them.

My opinion is: Mother Night starts promisingly but then disintegrates into cartoon capers larded with two-penny, ha’penny folk wisdom. In his later novels Vonnegut would find subjects and a form (more fragmented and studiedly meta-fictional, more open-ended and gossipy) which were much better suited to the kind of writer he is obviously, even in this early book, straining to be.

Credit

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr was published in 1962 by Fawcett Publications/Gold Medal Books. All references are to the Vintage paperback edition.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Remembering the Kindertransport: 80 Years On @ The Jewish Museum

To mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, the Jewish Museum in Camden is hosting two small but moving exhibitions.

The Kindertransport

‘Kinder’ is simply the German word for ‘children’, so the Kindertransport was the name given to the scheme whereby, in 1938-39, the British government allowed 10,000 Jewish and other ‘non-Aryan’ children from occupied Europe to come to Britain.

Earlier in the 1930s Britain had had a tough immigration policy, but that changed after the notorious Krystallnacht of November 1938, but the Kindertransport scheme was still very restrictive. Jewish lobbies brought pressure on the government to allow Jews up to the age of 17 to come to Britain without their parents, and on condition they would not cost the taxpayer.

Main room

Around the wall of the main exhibition room are photos of half a dozen grown-up Kindertransport children, now in their 80s or 90s. Photos of Ann, Bea, Bernd, Bob, Elsa and Ruth are accompanied by labels, replicas of the kind of labels which were attached to them when they arrived in Britain all those years ago.

Installation view of Remembering the Kindertransport at the Jewish Museum

Installation view of Remembering the Kindertransport at the Jewish Museum

The children escaped Nazi persecution, but they went through painful separations from their family, most of whom they never saw again. The parents had to find a British sponsor to cover the costs of hosting their child. In many cases this was done by British Jewish and non-Jewish charities under the lead of the Children’s Refugee Movement.

Not only teenagers, but toddlers and even babies were sent over. Often parents learned that their child had a place only days before the boat departed, leading to rushed and incomplete farewells. Most of the Kinder travelled by train through Holland, then by ferry to Harwich, before being taken on to London and greeted by the charity workers who then allotted them their placement.

Some children came to stay with relatives, but most lived with host families, or in children’s homes or hostels. The treatment of the Kinder varied from loving and nurturing through to surprisingly rough physical and economic exploitation. Some hosts and homes made no bones about the fact that the Kinder were going to have to work to earn their keep.

In 1940, when the Germans overran France and threatened to invade Britain, many of the Kinder found themselves evacuated yet again, this time to the countryside. And about 1,000 of the Kinder over the age of 18 were briefly interned as ‘enemy aliens’. Can you imagine the trauma!

On four big video screens are extensive interviews with Ann, Bea, Bernd, Bob, Elsa and Ruth , describing the pain of separation from family members, and the difficulty of fitting into an entirely new environment, with its new language and customs.

The films focus on the themes of ‘Life Before’, ‘Goodbyes’ and ‘New beginnings’. There are also a few display cases showing items like a hairbrush, a German-English dictionary, a Passover haggadah – the flotsam and jetsam of a terrible time.

Installation view of Remembering the Kindertransport at the Jewish Museum

Installation view of Remembering the Kindertransport at the Jewish Museum

On my visit the place was packed out with a school trip, working through one of those schoolkids’ worksheets which asks them to find facts and figures and ideas and issues among the various displays. That must surely be the focus of the exhibition – passing on history to the young generation. And above all the key message: Never again. Never again that kind of racism, intolerance and stupidity.

Still in Our Hands: Kinder Life Portraits

Up a few stairs, in the museum’s café, is a separate but related photographic exhibition. It consists of archival photographs and portraits by Dr Bea Lewkowicz of former Kindertransportees who were interviewed by the AJR Refugee Voices Testimony Archive.

The portraits in this little display show the connection between then and now, in each portrait the modern adult holding a back and white image of themselves as a child.

Some of the Kindertransport children, as adults

Some of the Kindertransport children, as adults

The 10,000 Kinder who came to Great Britain found themselves in the hands of a number of different agencies, governments, voluntary organisations, foster families and individual sponsors. In the words of one of interviewee, the Kinder were ‘thrown around by the tides of history’. Yet many not only survived, but thrived, going on to build extremely successful lives in their host country.

A small but thought-provoking exhibition in another time of mass flight and refugees.

A Kindertransport survivor remembers…


Related links

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition showcasing the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born, Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of Vishniac’s work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is so copious it is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also being co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London.

It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications and newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family, Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which inspired a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments by attaching the camera to the microscope and, as a teenager, became both an avid amateur photographer and a student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life.

He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, experimental camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play, the eeriness of public spaces.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing careers in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among the many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had long existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards they also helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be émigrés in the practical agricultural and vocational skills they would need in their new lives in Palestine.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin.

His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of other charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthy West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years Vishniac travelled extensively in the region, documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just show the photos but also has display cases presenting the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to convey the sense of strong determined Jews building a better future.

In 1941 the SS ordered the inhabitants of the camp who hadn’t managed to flee to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and managed to take a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life. So many angles, so many lights to his career.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, then took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new American home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand Vishniac was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards.

In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit Vishniac’s work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch.

It was these exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews which established Vishniac’s lasting reputation as the chronicler of the now-lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’.

Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of the new life in America full of youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish diaspora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish émigrés including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These VIP shots helped to attract other dancers, actors, musicians and artists to his studio and provide a steady supply of work.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Alongside the studio work, he began a new series of shots made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage. Fascinating and evocative.

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as the distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies. Pitiful remnants.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or ‘photomicroscopy’.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room where you can watch a slide show of 90 blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of insect eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the actual microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

‘What do you do,’ he said, ‘if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for? What do you do when everyone tells you not to worry, you can’t do anything about it, it was a long time ago?’ (p.213)

Robert Harris

Harris went to Cambridge where he read English, was president of the Union and editor of the student newspaper Varsity. He joined the BBC, where he worked on its flagship current affairs programmes, Panorama and Newsnight. In 1987 he became political editor of the Observer newspaper. In the 1980s he wrote five factual journalistic books – about chemical and biological warfare, the Falklands War, Neil Kinnock, the Hitler Diaries scandal and a study of Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary. It is an exemplary career of its type.

Fatherland

In 1992 Harris took the publishing world by storm when he published his first novel, Fatherland, set in an alternative world where Germany has won the Second World War. The two big ‘divergence points’ in this version of history – i.e. where this version turned away from actual history – were that:

  1. German armies cut off the Russians from their oil sources in the Caucasus and so were able to force them back to the line of the Urals, conquering Russian territory far beyond Moscow. In the novel this has given rise to a whole settler movement to encourage good Aryans to go and live in the vast new Eastern Empire, although fighting continues out on the remote border. Everyone knows the Americans are supplying money and weapons to the rump of the Russian army to allow them to fight on, and there are also dark rumours of ‘terrorist’ attacks on German settlers.
  2. The Nazis realised in 1942 that the British had cracked their Enigma code and so issued an entirely new code machine to all their U-boats, which were then able to sink Allied convoys at will. Britain was eventually starved into submission, ‘Churchill and his gang’ forced to flee to Canada, and peace made with the Nazi-friendly King Edward VIII. With no ally left in Europe, America has no alternative but to make a grudging peace with Germany and turn its efforts to defeating Japan in the Pacific (which it does).

As a result of German victory:

Luxembourg had become Moselland, Alsace-Lorraine was Westmark; Austria was Ostmark. As for Czechoslovakia – that bastard child of Versailles had dwindled to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia – vanished from the map. In the East, the German Empire was carved four ways into the Reichskommisariats Ostland, Ukraine, Caucasus, Muscovy. (p.201)

and Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have all been corralled by Germany into a European trading bloc under German control.

Xavier March

But all of this is old history to Xavier ‘Zavi’ March, ‘solitary, watchful’ (p.26), the world-weary Berlin cop – to be precise, a Sturmbannführer in the Kripo or Kriminalpolizei – who is the protagonist of this brilliantly gripping and disturbing thriller.

Like all fictional cops, March’s private life is a mess (his wife, Klara, has divorced him, taking his ten-year-old son, Pili, who has been taught to hate him as ‘insufficiently patriotic’) so now March inhabits a pokey flat in a squalid apartment block and lives only for his job. He doesn’t have a drink problem, which is a relief – but he does chain-smoke and he does worry about things.

The novel is set in 1964, over the five days between 14 April and the Führertag – 20 April – the day Germans (in this parallel universe) celebrate the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Not only that, but the newspapers are full of the impending visit of the US President Kennedy (in one of the many jokes that alternative histories allow, Harris makes this President Kennedy, the father of the one we know and love – the alleged crook and political fixer, Joseph Kennedy). Thus, like so many thrillers, Fatherland uses the build-up to big background events to crank up the tension in the main plot.

Like all good detective novels, it starts with a body, a man’s body is found in a lake in Berlin. After a lot of procedural work – visits to the gruesome autopsy, trips to the archives, calls to colleagues in other departments – March establishes that the dead man was a certain Buhler, a party official high up in the administration of occupied Poland early in the war. March discovers that Buhler had recently been in touch with two colleagues, Stuckart and Luther – but when March tries to track down these men he finds one is dead and the other missing.

Moreover, the investigation is only really getting going when March discovers it has been handed over to the Gestapo, who outrank his Kripo organisation and March is told to stand down. However, like every fictional investigator in every thriller ever, March is a conscientious maverick and so disregards orders to abandon the investigation. He goes poking around Buhler’s lakeside house, finding odd clues – for example Buhler had lost a foot in the war, blown off in a mine, and he discovers the plastic prosthetic foot in mud by the lake shore… Why would a man strip off for a swim in a freezing lake on a rainy Berlin day?

He then tracks down the feisty American woman journalist who reported Stuckart’s death to the authorities, one Charlie Maguire. She tells him Stuckart phoned to make an appointment to see her, but when she arrived at his apartment it was to find his blood-soaked corpse next to a gun and a suicide note.

Against his better judgement March finds himself confiding in Charlie, to the extent of persuading her to go back to the apartment with him and his trusty partner, Jaeger, to see if there are any clues. Here March’s superior police skills are demonstrated when he finds a hidden safe the ordinary cops had missed; they are just examining the contents when several cars screech up outside; it is the fearful Gestapo. Bundling Charlie out a back way, March and Jaeger remain to take the heat and they are arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the cells. Anything could happen, including the torture they all know exists, but which is rarely discussed.

Instead, after stewing the whole night, the following morning they are driven back out to Buhler’s mansion by the lake where the two cops realise there is a power struggle going on over the investigation. On the one hand is Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik, universally known as Globus – the bull-necked sadist General in the Gestapo. March knows from a witness that Globus was seen at the lake where Buhler’s body was later found. He suspects he also had some part in Stuckart’s murder. Is Globus killing these men and making it look like suicide? But why? Facing him is wiry little Artur Nebe, the thin, shrewd head of the Kripo (or the Oberstgruppenführer, Reich Kriminalpolizei). Nebe listens to Globus rant about March disobeying orders to desist investigating, but out-ranks him and decides to give March the benefit of the doubt.

Globus marches March, Jaeger and Nebe down into Buhler’s cellar, where his men have broken through a panel to reveal a secret room absolutely stuffed with priceless European works of art. Triumphant, Globus asserts that Buhler, Stuckart and Luther were in cahoots to smuggle art works from the East, where Buhler worked, then out of the country to make themselves rich. When they realised their scam was discovered they killed themselves in shame. That’s it.

Outside Nebe takes March aside and puts him in the picture, telling him that Globus has reported him – March – to the terrifying Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, and requested that March be immediately reposted from Berlin to some crappy provincial police force. What? Why? Because this affair is about much more than stolen art: March is blundering into something much bigger than he realises. Globus knows that March knows that Globus is somehow implicated, and therefore tried to persuade Heydrich to dispose of him. But Nebe convinced Heydrich to give March four days’ grace. Solve the case, Nebe tells March: report back to me everything you discover, and I may just be able to save your career.

Thus Harris deftly turns up the pressure on our man, who now has the threat of his career being ended and a swift exile to somewhere ghastly out in the occupied East, all set against the tension throughout Berlin rising with the approach of the Führertagand the impending visit of the US President, fraught with its own geopolitical ramifications. (It is testimony to Harris’s complete grasp of this parallel reality, that the implications of Kennedy’s visit are worked out so thoroughly; as a colleague tells him, it must indicate the war in the East is going really badly if Germany is prepared to cosy up to its long-term antagonist in the so-called ‘Cold War’, the United States, in what contemporaries are referring to as a new spirit of ‘détente’ – all this being, of course, a wry rethinking of the actual Cold War we know in our reality, the one between the US and the victorious USSR, and the well-known détente of the 1970s between them.)

Harris’s style

This book is written with great panache and style. It feels as if Harris has learned from all previous thriller writers, plus his own journalistic success, to deploy a prose style which is really taut and compressed. No matter how many times I had to put it down to go to work or cook dinner or other distractions, I was able to pick it up and within a few pages be back in its world, thoroughly gripped.

The comedy of alternative history

Alternative history is a recognised academic field now. I first heard of it via Niall Ferguson’s 1997 book, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. ‘Normal history’ is already full of irony, unintended consequences, comedy and farce. But alternative histories give the author the opportunity for commentary on the ‘real world’ at any number of levels, from the profoundly challenging, scholarly and intellectual, to the witty and waspish. Thus, in Harris’s universe, where Germany won the Second World War:

  • Cecil Beaton did some charming photo portraits of the Führer
  • four young lads from Liverpool are doing concerts in Hamburg which the authorities disapprove of (p.198)
  • The American president is a Kennedy, but not the stylish young dude we knew, rather his piratical anti-semitic father, Joseph
  • there is an SS Academy in Oxford (p.183)
  • there was a Treaty of Rome (as in the real world) but this one tied unoccupied Europe into a trading zone dominated by Germany

These comments are often very witty, but their overall effect is quite a profound one – for they raise the question of how much the deep currents of history can be altered or derailed? Would Germany have dominated the continent of Europe, have created a European Union, would German industry, German cars and TVs still have dominated our shops, would German tourists have hogged the best loungers and German football teams kept on winning the Euro and World cups, regardless of who won the war? Would the Beatles and 1960s protest have happened regardless of the outcome?

Are there patterns of social and economic and technological change which have their own ineluctable logic, which are unavoidable no matter what the outcome of wars, the decisions of politicians, the coming and going of revolutions and restorations? Is there a kind of fatality about the overall direction of human history, unaffected by even the largest social or political events?

The Holocaust

As the novel progresses March and Charlie become an item, falling in love and sleeping together, as they try to figure out what’s going on, each with their own perspective – March the conscientious cop, Charlie the American journalist looking for a scoop, both realising there’s something fishy about Globus’s art smuggling story.

As part of their deal, Nebe allows March out of the country for 24 hours, to fly to Zurich because he has established that Luther, the only one of the trio unaccounted for, flew to Zurich a few weeks earlier. And in Stuckart’s apartment, in the hidden safe, he discovered the number and key of a Swiss safety deposit box. Putting 2 and 2 together, he speculates that Luther flew out on behalf of all three to get something – what?

But when he and Charlie open the box in the Swiss bank they find nothing in it but an admittedly invaluable painting by Leonardo da Vinci. So is it all about art? Nothing but a big art smuggling scam? But in passport control back at Berlin, it dawns on March that Luther might have deliberately left something to be found as ‘lost luggage’, planning to reclaim it later, not knowing he would have to go on the run. Acting on this hunch he pulls in a favour from an old buddy in the airport staff and wangles hold of a stylish briefcase left behind after the flight which he and Charlie know Luther took back from Zurich, and with Luther’s initials. Must be his.

What they find inside comes a bombshell to them and the reader. Iit is a big collection of documents which the novel reprints verbatim over the next thirty pages or so. Most of them (as the afterword explains) are actual Nazi documents from the war detailing the construction of the Holocaust death camps, documents recording the high-level policy decisions to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ once and for all, a decision which led to mountains of bureaucratic paperwork organising the supply of bricks and mortar, new railway schedules of trains bringing Jews from the West to occupied Poland, to build the gas chambers and to supply the Zyklon B nerve gas, in an organised, psychopathic, industrialised attempt to murder all 11 million of Europe’s Jews.

For the next forty or fifty pages Charlie and March read through the documents and try to come to terms with what they’ve discovered. In their version of history, none of this is known. Germans sort of suspect it and sort of make jokes about it, but it is nowhere written down or recorded, the Jewish inhabitants of March’s flat before him – the Weiss family – have been obliterated from the record and so have all the other Jews of Europe.

This is a truly terrifying vision in a number of ways.

1. In this version of history the Germans succeed in wiping out the Jews. Completely. Not leaving 2 or 3 or 4 million to survive and go on to build their own independent state. None. None survive. Complete annihilation. While Charlie and March are getting used to the scale of this monstrous deceit and historical genocide, the reader is grappling with the notion that an entire race or nation can be wiped out and – it have no results. Europe carries on. People moan about the weather and their work and their wives and no-good children. The Jews are gone as if they had never been.

2. On another level, the reader is also rereading some of the actual key documents from the creation of the Holocaust, an experience which makes you feel traumatised, disgusted and shattered with despair all over again.

One of the documents is a five-page description of the visit Luther himself made to Auschwitz in his official position as a senior Nazi in Poland. He records the detraining of 60 wagons full of Jewish men, women and children who have been packed into the cattle trucks for four days and nights, during which many have died. He records the separation off of the fit men who will be worked to death, and the immediate hussling of the remaining sick, women, children and elderly direct to the gas chamber where they are told to strip off for delousing, and then coralled into the chamber and the door locked. Then the scientists arrive with the canisters which they empty into the chutes which go down into the floor of the chamber. Here the mauve crystals of Zyklon B are oxidised to become the fatal nerve gas which then pours unstoppably up through the grilles in the floor, creating an indescribable frenzy as the people inside scrabble over each other in futile attempts to escape.

These five pages alone overwhelm much of the rest of the book. It is difficult to continue reading and impossible to read the rest of the book in the previous frame of mind.

The documents indicate that there was a ring of some 14 Nazi officials who all worked in the same part of the Death camp division. March makes enquiries and discovers that one by one they’ve been dying off, killed in road accidents, mysterious explosions, ‘suicides’. Someone is killing off these final witnesses to the atrocity. It must have been this which prompted Stuckart, Buhler and Luther to panic and go for the documents in Zurich which they hoped to use as some kind of passport to escape.

While March had been away investigating Charlie received a phone call from the missing Luther. He wants to meet next day at the central station. He wants Charlie’s help to be smuggled out of Germany and to America, along with the documents. Next day March parks nervously across from the station steps and watches Charlie and her friend from the US Embassy wait tensely. Finally a furtive figure emerges from the crowds and moves towards them, is only meters away when… His head explodes, vaporises, demolished by the high velocity bullet of a professional assassin. Spattered with blood, in shock, Charlie is hussled into March’s car which takes off with a squeal of breaks.

Now they realise their phone calls and apartments are bugged. March takes Charlie to a hotel whose owner owes him a favour and they hide out in a small attic room. Here March supervises Charlie’s bid to flee Germany. They dye her hair to look like a young woman who was killed in an unrelated car accident earlier in the week and whose passport March has swiped from his offices for just this purpose. He packs her off in a hired car, telling her to drive south and cross the border into Switzerland. He promises to meet her there, but they both know he won’t. By now the atmosphere of doom lies too heavy over the story.

Instead March drives out to the crappy suburb where his ex-wife lives to see his son for one last time, to try and make amends for being such a bad dad. But, in a bitter twist of the knife, it turns out that Globus and his thugs have suborned his son to act nice and keep his Daddy busy until they can surround the house. They burst in, arrest March and take him to Gestapo headquarters, where Globus plays very bad cop, alternating with a more ‘civilised’ Gestapo interviewer, Krebs, who gives the bloodied March cigarettes, and tries to wheedle the truth out of him. Both want to know a) what was in the case and b) where’s the girl?

The torture scenes go on over many pages describing days and nights of pain and delirium, climaxing in the scene where several thugs man-handle March’s right forearm onto the table and Globus, with all his strength, swings a baseball bat down on to March’s hand, reducing it to a mangled pulp of bloody flesh.

Finally, the authorities try a con trick: Krebs, the more sympathetic of the interrogators, arrives with a sympathetic doctor, gives him painkillers and clean clothes, then takes him by car, ostensibly to another dungeon. But then he stops the car on a pretext and takes March down into some old war ruins. Here the sly Nebe steps out of the shadows, in a scene straight out of a hundred movies. Nebe says that he and Krebs have both been scandalised and disgusted by what March has told them about the Holocaust. They have always hated the Gestapo and their brutal methods, and so they want March to successfully smuggle the documents out of Germany, to be published in American, so the rest of the world can see what criminals are running the regime. They push him towards a car in which is waiting his fat partner, Jaeger. ‘Where shall I take you?’ Jaeger asks.

But even through the blood and pain and drugs of his torture wounds, March realises it is a trap. They are hoping he will take them to the girl and to the remaining documents. So he draws a gun on Jaeger and with his last energy orders him, not to drive south to where he hopes Charlie is crossing the Swiss border, but East, across the border into what was once Poland, driving for hours and hundreds of kilometers until he forces Jaeger to drive off the Autobahn onto the local road and then onto local farm tracks which lead out to the empty acres of derelict industrial land where once stood the appalling death camp Auschwitz, which he has read so much about.

During his torture by Globus, the fat sadist had gloated that, yes, he, Globus, took part in the extermination of the Jews and yes, he is proud of it, but that the world will never know. All the evidence has been destroyed. All the Jews are gone, all the buildings were destroyed long ago, and all the paperwork was burned like the bodies. Almost the only evidence left in the world is the documents Buhler and Stuckart and Luther had squirreled away in their Swiss bank as insurance in case their art smuggling was discovered. And now, Globus gloats in March’s blood-sodden face, all three are dead, and soon they will have the girl and the briefcase and all March’s clever investigation will have been for nothing.

So March has come to the bare barren land which was Auschwitz for two reasons: to decoy the Gestapo he knows must be following him, as far away as possible from his lover and her desperate mission to inform the world; and to see for himself whether it’s true: whether there really is no record, no sign, no testimony at all to the greatest horror in human history.

Thus he is still stumbling across the grass and mud looking for evidence, for bricks or doors or metal frames, for anything – when he hears the cars arrive, and the helicopter which had been following them from Berlin coming up overhead, carrying the Gestapo with their machine guns. ‘Drop your weapon,’ they shout through loudspeakers, so March turns and cocks his Luger, determined not to be taken alive.

And that’s the end. March is obviously going to die, but what about Charlie? Will she escape to Switzerland? Will she get anyone to publish the documents? Will anyone believe her? And will the US government – which has invested so much in President Kennedy’s visit to the old enemy, Nazi Germany, and its new policy of détente – allow this major geopolitical initiative to be derailed by a hysterical woman with her grotesque and improbable claims?

The novel leaves you reeling not only with the horror of the secret at its heart, but also at the seeming hopelessness of exposing the truth in a world where everyone has a vested interest in keeping it hidden.

Credit

Fatherland by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 1992. All quotes and references are to the 1993 Arrow Books paperback edition.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

Attack Alarm by Hammond Innes (1941)

‘I have to get to a certain farm tonight,’ I said. ‘I’m playing a lone hand against a gang of fifth columnists. They’ve got a plan that will enable the Germans to capture our fighter aerodromes. I aim to stop them.’…
A sudden gleam came into his small, close-set eyes. ‘Cor lumme!’ he said. ‘Wot a break! Like a book I bin reading all about gangsters in America. Will they have guns?’ (p.158)

This is a cracking good adventure yarn in the spirit of John Buchan or, at moments, Biggles. It’s a first-person narrative by Barry Hanson, formerly a journalist on the Globe newspaper, who is now, in the Battle of Britain summer of 1940, one of a platoon or squad manning a 3-inch anti-aircraft gun at ‘Thorby’, a fighter airfield near the North Downs, south of London.

Set-up

We meet the dozen or so men of Hanson’s detachment, their officers, some of the WAAFs, watch them man the gun, rest and sleep and feed at the NAAFI, thus establishing the workaday background.

Rumour has been going round that a Nazi agent was found with detailed plans of Thorby airfield. The crew watch one night as the nearby airfield of Mitchet is heavily bombed by German planes. A few nights later our chaps hit a German bomber and watch it fall to earth and explode. The crew parachute down to land near the field and Hanson is among those who are close enough to talk to the captain. He is a surly Nazi who insists on seeing an officer. When Hanson (who picked up German while working in his paper’s Berlin office before the war) questions him a bit more, the German arrogantly says, ‘The Invasion is coming, the Luftwaffe will defeat the RAF, this airfield at Thorby will be flattened on Friday.’ He is in mid-flow when he suddenly shuts up. Looking behind him Hanson sees the camp librarian, a Mr Vayle, has appeared. Was it his presence which made the pilot go quiet?

Later Hanson hears the pilot was much more circumspect when hauled before the airfield CO and Intelligence officer, downplaying the Friday bombing claim – and  Hanson learns that Vayle was in attendance, chatting to the pilot in German while he was being attended to the Medical Officer and before that interrogation. Can Vayle possibly be a German spy?

Hanson asks a WAAF he’s got friendly with, Marion, to send a telegram to the Globe’s crime correspondent, but the message is suspicious enough for the village Post Office to report it to the camp commandant, and Hanson finds himself hauled over the coals: he is in the Army now, it is forbidden to go off freelancing like this, if he has suspicions he reports them to his CO and goes through proper channels. It is ludicrous to think Vayle is a Nazi spy, the man is Jewish and fled the Nazis in 1934. — Hanson is confined to camp for 28 days.

One man who knows the truth

The result is a classic early thriller situation: one man who is convinced he knows a secret the authorities won’t admit; who is convinced he knows about a spy; is convinced there will be a devastating raid on his airfield; but the Authorities won’t believe him. And even his colleagues turn suspicious of him, since they all saw him having a chatty conversation in German with the downed pilot. They think he‘s the fishy one. Like the protagonist of a Hitchcock film, he is surrounded by suspicion and fear.

I sat there in a numbed state of fear at the thought of what it meant. For it meant, of course, that I was a marked man. (p.78)

In quick succession Hanson finds a folded-up map of the base hidden in his pass, then finds one of the camp workman has reported him to the authorities for asking lots of suspicious questions about the new rewiring of the airfield. The workman suggests the authorities search Hanson, which they do, not finding the map which Hanson burned immediately after finding it – but now he realises that Vayle has this man as an accomplice; there’s at least two of them.

And then he discovers there’s a woman, too: Elaine, a pretty, flirtatious WAAF. Hanson breaks into Vayle’s office and finds a photo of Vayle and Elaine together, with ‘Berlin 1934’ written on it. Are they a husband-and-wife spy team? Will the big attack the German pilot promised for Friday actually materialise? Hanson’s girlfriend, Marion, overhears Elaine talking in her sleep about Cold Harbour Farm: does that place have some significance in Nazi invasion plans?

The pace doesn’t let up, and the setting, in an airfield where everyone is tense with anticipation of the next air raid and overwrought through lack of sleep, adds to the increasingly feverish atmosphere, until Hanson realises he is going to have to go AWOL and nip out of the camp to go in person to this Cold Harbour Farm to find out if it really is the base for some kind of invasion plan. It’s lucky for him that the squadron’s pint-sized cockney, Mickey, picks the same time and place to do a runner, so that they end up forming an unlikely alliance to combat the fiendish Nazi conspiracy.

Historical accuracy

Innes served as a Royal Artillery anti-aircraft gunner at RAF Kenley during the Battle of Britain. We can assume that the description of the geography and layout of RAF ‘Thorby’, along with the officers and men, and the tense and draining life of constant worry, are accurate. And, as with most of Innes’ other novels, you experience the strange sensation of buying into a totally mundane, ordinary, workaday setting, and then slowly getting sucked into the mounting hysteria of an ever-more unlikely plot.

How to create tension

Part of the technique is to put the ordinary bloke protagonist through a succession of scary or tense situations; then to have him mull over at frequent intervals, the nature of fear, of feeling your guts turn to water or becoming aware of your heart beating fast on your chest etc. It helps that the hero only has one other person he can rely on, ideally a dishy, plucky, loyal woman – at least she believes me – in this case the WAAF Marion, who runs up to hug Hansom at the very satisfying happy end of this gripping entertainment.

Innes’ delaying tactics

This early novel also hints at a technique he will really on more and more as the years pass, the tendency for all Innes characters to never quite express their thoughts, never tell each other what’s happening, to bottle up, or not express, or not spit it out. So many Innes conversations feature pregnant pauses, shrugging of shoulders, hesitations or plain silence… Used in moderation, this is a way of increasing tension, but even in this early novel the plot only really exists because Hanson refuses to go to his CO and lay all the evidence before him – at which point things would be taken completely out of his hands and we’d have no solo heroics. Similarly, if protagonists of later novels just said ‘We scuttled the ship’ (The Wreck of The Mary Deare) or ‘We’re looking for diamonds’ (Target Antarctica) the narratives would stop dead in their tracks. Instead Innes concocts two hundred pages from his tactics of delay and non-communication.

Sensations not thoughts

It also reveals the rather low intellectual content of his books. The narrator has a few sentences feeling sorry for the poor buggers in the planes they’re trying to shoot down and which are blown up in the book’s spectacular conclusion, a few trite reflections on the beastliness of war – but these are shallow gestures, clichés, the kind of nostrums you’re expected to utter as ‘a Writer’.

In fact, the text shows no reflectiveness or thought. Its focus is on convincingly describing the boredom and irritations of Army living, interspersed with vivid descriptions of terrifying air attacks, before settling down to shock, thrill and excite the reader with its breathlessly melodramatic plot.


Credit

Attack Alarm by Hammond Innes was published by William Collins in 1941. All references are to the 1980 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Trojan Horse by Hammond Innes (1940)

As I saw it, this wasn’t just a single spy or a single criminal I was up against. It was organised espionage. The organised espionage of a power notorious for its efficiency and ruthlessness. (p.52)

Hammond Innes wrote over 30 novels from the mid 1930s through to the 1970s, becoming a byword for fast, thrilling adventure stories, and forming a link and father figure to the following generations of thriller writers (Alistair MacLean first pubd 1955, Desmond Bagley first pubd 1963).

This is his fifth novel, begun as Russia invaded Finland and published right at the start of the World War II. It is unusual in not being set abroad but almost all taking place in London.

The plot

Told in the first person by sensible barrister Andrew Kilmartin who is visited by ‘a tubby little Jew’ whose photo, he realises, he has seen in the newspapers because he is wanted for the murder of an engineer in Wales a few weeks previously. The visitor quickly reveals that he is Schmidt, a brilliant Austrian engineer who was forced to flee after the Anschluss (1938) and was taken in by his Welsh in-laws. Turns out he has invented a new lightweight alloy which will handle the strains of the new generation of diesel naval or airplane engines. Lighter alloy, lighter engines, faster ships and planes. The balance of the war could hang on this discovery. Schmidt claims he had nothing to do with the Llewellin murder and departs with cryptic clues about who is really responsible.

Kilmartin starts out sceptical and after Schmidt leaves is inclined to phone his friend at Scotland Yard. But he visits Schmidt’s old flat only to find it has been ransacked. One of the books on the floor has the same title as Schmidt’s clue and, when he takes it to his friend David Schiel the photogrpaher over on Shaftesbury Avenue, they discover a coded message written in ultra violet characters at the back of the book. Then David’s flat is ransacked.

Slowly a vast conspiracy is uncovered which includes the big and reputable industrial concern, Calboyd, along with its famously patriotic chairman, as well as one of the shrewdest financial journalists in the City, Max Sedel. He and David pick up on a clue in Schmidt’s coded message and drive down to Cornwall to discover it the hiding place of Schmidt’s daughter who has smuggled out the only existing prototype of the new engine on a motorboat. But as they arrive the motorboat is being impounded by the Royal Navy coastguard and they realise the impounding is only the first step in the boat being mysteriously stolen from naval dockyards, and then cunningly smuggled out of the country aboard a ship publicly proclaiming to be taking arms and munitions to our gallant allies in Finland.

1. Down in the sewer

But Kilmartin leaves it just a bit too late, he wants to sow up all the loose ends just a bit too perfectly and is just on the verge of contacting the police with all he knows when he finds himself suddenly captured and locked in a deep vault under a City of London bank. Only after some time has passed in despair of ever getting released or rescuing the boat does he see a rat disappear into a hole in the vault and set about a desperate attempt, first to dig out the mortar between some of the oldest stone and then, once he’s knocked a hole through, Kilmartin discovers he is in the maze of ancient sewers beneath the City of London. And he hasn’t gone far when he hears voices and sees torchlight and realises the baddies are after him… And so into a genuinely thrilling and very vividly described chase.

2. The Battle of Thirlmere

Once free Kilmartin discovers the police are now after him having been fed incriminating evidence by the network of enemy spies, and that Schmidt’s pretty daughter, Freya, has been kidnapped by them. He goes down to the Pool of London to see the very public sending-off the Thirlmere a boat ponsored by Calboyds and carrying arms and ammunition to Finland. Only Kilmartin knows that everyone involved is a German agent and that, once it leaves British territorial waters and its Royal Navy escort behind, it will alter course and steam to Germany not only with the supplies, but with the crucial prototype engine aboard.

Suffice to say Kilmartin smuggles himself aboard, along with his aide David, they rescue Freya from her cell then, along with Schmidt who had stowed away in disguise, they smuggle themselves into one of the half dozen or so tanks on the decks. Once the RN has departed, the ship hoists Nazi flags, the ‘aid volunteers’ arrest the loyal crew and the ship turns towards germany. But Schmidt, Kilmartin et al use the tank’s gun to blow up half the bride and machine gun half the enemy agents, release the loyal crew who set a new course back to England before the situation escalates even more with squadrons of British and German airplanes fighting it out in the skies above them.

Once back on English soil the authorities reveal that they managed to piece together all the evidence and clues AK had left them. Our man has saved the day! and won himself a pretty, brave fiancée!!

Disclaimer

There is the usual disclaimer that, although it reads like a melodrama/adventure/spy story, it isn’t really.

‘There’s no such thing as adventure, except in retrospect. You read stories or hear people talk of adventures. They sound exciting. But the reality is not exciting. There’s pain to the body and torture to mind and nerves, and a wretched death for most adventurers.’ (Fontana 1973 paperback edition, p.52)

Dramatis personae

  • Andrew Kilmartin: sober, sensible King’s Counsel: the lead protagonist in exposing a network of German agents in England, drawing on his experience of Intelligence work during World War I
  • Franz Schmidt: Austrian Jewish refugee from the Nazis, world-leading engine designer
  • Olwen Llewllin: married Schmidt; beaten in the street for being married to a Jew and dies in prison
  • Evan Llewellin: brother of Schmidt’s wife, who takes him in in Cardiff; murdered by Nazi agents
  • David Shiel: bohemian photographer with studios on Shaftesbury Avenue, becomes intimately involved as Kilmartin’s assistant in the adventure
  • Calboyd’s Diesel Company: leading British firm in this sector chaired by well-known captain of industry and philanthropist Sir James Calboyd, key members of the Board are exposed as Nazi agents
  • Desmond Crisham: Kilmartin’s contact at Scotland Yard who he drip-feeds his revelations for fear they are so scandalous Crisham will reject them out of hand – ‘one of the bulldog breed’
  • Cones of Runnel: buoys/landmarks off the Cornwall coast which are a key to Schmidt’s code, and help Kilmartin and Shiel track down Schmidt’s daughter
  • Freya: Schmidt’s daughter: an experienced sailor and engineer
  • Max Sedel: top City journalist, expert on aircraft industry and others; refugee from Germany: the fact that he has an uncontrollable hatred of Jews kind of suggests what is then revealed, ie he is the king pin of the Nazi organisation – a gangster, ‘a fanatic with boundless ambition’
  • John Burston: on the Board of Calboyds he discovers what is going on and is murdered
  • Baron Ferdinand Marburg – financier, Society figure, philanthropist – German agent
  • Sefton Raikes – works manager of Calboyd’s who disagrees with the direction of travel and is murdered
  • The Thirlmere – the steamer supposedly to take arms and munitions to plucky Finland; in fact loaded with tanks and weapons and Schmidt’s lightweight diesl engine

Related links

Pan paperback edition of The Trojan Horse

Pan paperback edition of The Trojan Horse

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A long, bewildering, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

%d bloggers like this: