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[210] The German Woman – Paul Griner

german

With the Germans suspecting I work for the English, and the English suspecting I work for the Germans? I don’t want to live my life worried what will happen. I did that for far too long, so now, who cares?[285]

During World War I, in East Prussia, the Russians have mistaken Kate and her husband Horst, a surgeon whose German descent had brought about his exile from England, as spies. By fluke an enemy whom they treated at the clinic takes them across the line to the German zone. For fifteen years, life in Berlin, then Hamburg, Kate, takes care of Horst who has lost his vision surviving a bombing. The scenes of civilian life—the continual, frantic hunt for food, the meagerness of commodities, the morose insistence on imagining the worst—evokes Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise. Lawlessness and self-extermination seem to be the only choices. Kate Zweig, an Englishwoman by nature, nourishes an aversion toward England which she believes is responsible for bringing war to the civilians.

Hitler is evil . . . But rational Germans supported him because they starved under the republic, thanks to the French and the Poles and the English. Even the English soldiers were appalled by what the postwar blockade did . . . That’s the problem, isn’t it? To kill Nazi’s you must kill Germans too. That the war is justified doesn’t justify everything in it. [103]

In 1944, Charles Murphy, arraigned for treason, jailed for making anti-England films and exiled from America some 30 years ago, makes London home. During Nazi’s V1 reign of terror, under his German name Claus, he makes propaganda films by day and works as a spy for the British Ministry of Information after dark. The Germans are foolishly quick to believe his intelligence. Instructed to develop other agents throughout England for corroboration, Claus makes up most of his contacts, which explains his scouting and collecting mundane details of civilian life. When Claus and Kate meet, her experience in life, the layered past, immediately becomes the source of his film as well as the characterization of his fake contacts. But he also has doubt that she might be a German spy.

Had all of her touching emotional moments been manufactured earlier, to be produced at the proper time, or, worse, was she merely a wonderfully intuitive actress who understood what was necessary in every scene and could unearth it? [281]

The cleverness of The German Woman, despite the initial build-up of obscure factual information on the war, is this somewhat contrived fogging up of necessary details that obstruct reader’s clear perception of who Kate and Claus are. As alliance changes, so does one’s warrant of safety. What Kate and Claus had experienced in the first world war, in which they were both betrayed by their countries, becomes significant in their choice of alliance in the second world war. Beaten by war, they fall in love fraught with doubt. Evokes from this affair that is suppressed under the weight of uncontrollable events is that nationality can be out of favor. What matters is the human cause because on a human scale nothing is out of bounds. Griner’s historical details can be as obfuscating as Ondaatje’s prose. Espionage is wittily used to evoke issues of love, patriotism and identity.

308 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] Paul Griner is the author of the acclaimed novel Collectors and the story collection Follow Me. The German Woman was partly inspired by the true story of a team of American filmmakers who were tired for treason just after the United States entered World War I for making a film critical of the British.

[107] Sword and Blossom – Peter Pagnamenta & Momoko Williams

sword.jpgTears well up in my eyes and trickle down my face as I was about 30 pages to the end of this memoir.

If Author and Masa have to blame fate for tricking them, they might as well thank fate for allowing them to meet at the first place. Spanning over half a century, the memoir follows their enduring attempts to make a life together and chronicles inevitable social prejudices and snobbery they have encountered.

It began when a smoldering quarrel between Japan and Russia over their competing interests in the territory of their weaker neighbors, China and Korea, has flared up around the turn of the century in 1900 and might soon turn to war. That the Japanese appreciate the aesthetics of gardening lends a chance for the British officer to meet the young Masa Suzuki at the Tokyo Officer’s Club for peach blossom viewing. He is smitten immediately and continues to seek her out. That Masa has carried the stigma of divorce (from a pre-arranged marriage that favors the family’s fortune), and that Arthur has spent years stationing in isolated posts in India and South Africa help expedite their relationship. By the time they settle down in Shinjuku, in 1907, he is emotionally engaged with Masa and Japan. Overcoming periods of separation help their relationship move to new stage. For her part, Maza is being regarded as a person in her own right, for the first time in her life, by a man who wants to know her views and respect her opinion. She acts with Arthur in a way that Japanese men and women might find shockingly forward.

After the saddest and tensest parting in 1911, Arthur leaves for Europe to enlist into a battalion that escalates into what becomes of the Great War.  When frequent military movements put Authur out of touch with Masa, she for first time, despite her patience, begins to worry about how she will manage with a Western looking child as she stands out in the streets of Tokyo where conformity to the traditional values matter.

More than a love story, Sword and Blossom, which is made possible by the 800 some letters of correspondence between Aurthur and Masa, delineates one of the most political unstable and belligerent era of the 20th century. As both individuals strive to maintain contact and sustain the hope of reuniting with one another, their petty but intimate exchanges also reveal details of daily life during the 1918 flu pandemic, World War I, and the destructive earthquake that leveled half of Tokyo in 1923. Registered in between their words are poignant scenes of starvation, deaths, pestilence, and prospect of yet another war, as the Japanese launches a full attack on China on the eve of World War II. This book provides a very touching and private view of two individuals from completely different background and culture and their relationship against the backdrop of historic events.

[106] Shadow Without a Name – Ignacio Padilla

shadow.jpgAs in the chess games which are at the heart of action here, characters in Shadow Without a Name move like pawns, often being overtaken by events and contingencies, and supplanted by other men as a part of the grand, overall game of life. This is a challenging read–the plot is complex, layered, and the narrative is made up of four overlapping accounts that span across a zigzag timeline. Despite constant changes of identity, incarnations of a same name, and twists and revelations throughout, the novel never loses its way, nor will the careful reader. The tight storyline maintains a tension, and the author’s ingenuity in manipulating characters by taking advantage of the historical fact that it was common in those times to steal someone else’s identity provides constant surprises.

The first speaker is Franz T. Kretzschmar. He tells the story of a pointsman, Viktor Kretzschmar, who is being charged with causing a terrible train crash. His motives for this crime open the door into the mystery fueling the plot of this book, for as his son discovers, Kretzschmar was actually born as Thadeus Dreyer but won the name—and safety—in a chess game on a Salzburg-Munich train that was to take him to the front, fighting for the German army in World War I. The loser became Thadeus Dreyer and faced almost certain death in battle.

Richard Schley, the second narrator, is a seminarian in 1918, when he chances to meet Thadeus Dryer, whom he once knew in Vienna as Jacob Efrussi. Giving up his false religious faith, he roams through the trenches of the front to look for his friend, who resolves not to return home. Schley plays a game of chess with his wounded pal that leads to another identity switch.

A third speaker, Alikoska Goliadkin, is an associate of Thadeus Dreyer during his rise to power in the Nazi era, connects Dreyer with Adolf Eichmann and with Kretzschmar’s son, who becomes a part of the Amphitryon Project, which creates look-alikes, or decoys, of powerful Nazi leaders in case of a rout. It turns out that this secretive project, headed by Dreyer, is one of the many attempts by Nazi officers opposed to Hitler’s policies to destroy the regime from within. In a twist straight out of a thriller, this Dreyer (who was Schley) isn’t the same person from the train, a fact that is somewhat irrelevant, as the name of Dreyer continues to re-incarnate through history, assuming a certain inevitable force along the way.

The fourth speaker, Daniel Sanderson, is named as one of the heirs of a Polish baron who has left behind encrypted manuscripts that will reveal the true identity of Adolf Eichmann, who has been recently arrested in Argentina and is key to the whole mystery.

Putting aside the intrigues of the plot, the most interesting aspect of this novel is its structural form. Padilla tells his story through four stand-alone yet interwoven sections, each narrated by a different character at a different time and place. These monologues are restricted by the character’s point of view, presenting the reader with all the clues to the puzzle but no omniscient narrator to put it all together. So only the reader can figure out that Kretzschmar’s son is trying to exact his revenge against a different Dreyer, and by paying attention to the seemingly extraneous dates and places where each section was written the reader can uncover the final clues to the novel’s game.