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Garden of Beasts


In 1933, William Dodd, a Chicago academic, is appointed the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. He enters this cauldron accompanied by his family, most particularly by his very modern daughter, Martha. Larson shows us the quickly changing Germany of 1933 through their eyes. Eric Larsen has a talent for taking a big event, like the Galveston flood of 1900 (Isaac’s Storm), the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (The Devil in the White City) , or the implementation of the transatlantic cable (Thunderstruck) and combining it with a compelling individual’s story. He uses the broader context of historical events and personalizes it, so that, in effect, the parts become greater than the sum of the whole.

Dodd took a job that no one else wanted. FDR had been trying for months to find a new ambassador to Germany. Finally, when Dodd’s name was suggested, FDR offered him the job. In many ways, Dodd was an odd choice as ambassador: although he had studied in Leipzig as a student and was at least literate in German, Dodd had no old family money, no political connections, and loathed double-dealing and pretense of any sort. He was a plain-spoken fellow who had worked his way up from humble beginnings as a farm boy to assuming a professorship at the University of Chicago.

Once the family arrived in Berlin, they had to find housing. After some weeks of searching, they took a lease on an imposing house at Tiergartenstrasse 27A. The house was the home of a Jewish private banker and his family, who continued to occupy the attic. Meanwhile, the Dodds had the run of the bottom three floors of the lushly appointed home, which included a ballroom, a library, and a sufficient number of other rooms to see to the needs of an ambassador’s family.

Unbeknownst to Dodd at the time of his arrival, his new home was also within “brick throwing distance” from the headquarters of the SS, and barely removed from the facility codenamed “Aktion (Action) T4,” for its address, Tiergartenstrasse 4. In the SS building, people were being imprisoned, tortured and killed. Two blocks away in T4, the Nazis began murdering mentally and physically impaired people, as well as beginning research on methods of mass killing that would end with the introduction of Zyklon-B gas into the concentration camps.

I grabbed In the Garden of Beasts at the airport bookstore, riveted at it for two hours at the United Lounge and another hour and a half on the flight. It’s an addictive read and I had only put it aside because the plane was touching down in Las Vegas where I’ll spend the 4th of July long weekend. I’ll most likely pick it back up by the pool.

[432] Put Out More Flags – Evelyn Waugh

” You know exactly what I mean. Basil’s needed a war. He’s not meant for peace. ” (12)

Put Out More Flags is so typically Waugh: he has developed a wickedly hilarious and yet spot-on assault (if you’re familiar with British history) on traditional values. The book is set in the week that precedes the outbreak of World War II, the days of “surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace.” (3) As the Prime Minister declares England at war on the radio, three rich women are all mindful of Basil Seal, the anti-hero of the book. They are his sister, his mother, and his mistress. Through them we learn how Basil makes the most out of the war.

… and if you had gone into the Army when you left Oxford you would be a major by now. Promotion is very quick in war-time because so many people get killed. (182)

Right when war is breaking out, Basil accepts his sister Barbara’s suggestion to billet—to place urban children with rural families to protect them from incipient bombings. Soon Bail turns billeting into a lucrative business as country house residents are more than happy to pay him for not hosting three monstrous children. “What’s it worth to you to have those children moved from you?” (124)

There’s a lot to be said for a uniform. For one thing you’ll have to call me ‘sir’ and if there’s any funny stuff with the female staff I can take disciplinary action. For another thing it’s the best possible disguise for a man of intelligence. (190)

Meanwhile, Basil mother’s mother sets her heart o enlisting her son into a decent regiment. Lady Seal believes that a patriotic commission will save him from his unaccountable taste for low company that had led him into many vexatious scrapes. But the unemployable Basil is able to insinuate into a peculiar role during mobilization. He finds a job with the Ministry of Intelligence where he discovers that the secret to success is to level charges of Communism and Nazism against his friends and inform on them. Those who fell under Basil’s recondite pretexts of patriotism include a Jewish atheist who launches a fascist magazine. Waugh also makes fun of pampered aristocrats’ amateurish attempt of patriotism and fighting. An upper-class man enlists as a soldier because he believes that “he would make as good a target as anyone else for the King’s enemies to shoot at.”

The novel is a myopic look at England in her last fateful moment of history. Beneath the humor and jokes is grim reality that the upper-class people, deprived of values except pleasure-seeking, fail to grasp. The book itself is not without flaws. It’s worth skimming, but not Waugh’s best. A coherent narrative thread is absent in Put Out More Flags, rendering it a potpourri of barely disguised concepts and clippings from previous novels loosely thrown together.

286 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[210] The German Woman – Paul Griner


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.

[198] Rue Ordener Rue Labat – Sarah Kofman

rue“My mother suffered in silence: no news from my father; no means of visiting any brothers and sisters; no power to prevent Mémé from transforming me, detaching me from her and from Judaism.” [57]

Translator Ann Smock, professor of French at Berkeley, comments that upon their return, survivors of Nazi camps were all seized by a veritable delirium. Sarah Kofman, a renowned French philosopher, spent her childhood dodging roundup of Jews. In Rue Ordener Rue Labat, an autobiographical fragment that covers a decade between the ages of eight to about eighteen, her vision of the years in war-torn Paris is myopic. The book is very straight-forward, written in plain language that is free of literary qualities.

Kofman’s reminiscence begins on July 16, 1942, the day the Vichy police picked up Rabbi Bereck Kofman from the family (Polish-Jews) apartment on the Rue Ordener in Paris. On that day, Kofman’s father was among the thirteen thousand Jews that were taken all over Europe in a single roundup.

For that, my father along with so many others suffered this infinite violence: death at Auschwitz, the place where no eternal rest would or could ever be granted. [10]

After a circuitous bout of movings and hidings, in which Sarah was separated from her five siblings, she and her mother took refuge in the apartment of a Christian woman on Rue Labat, where they stayed until liberation. That Mémé, the benefactress, took a liking of Sarah and undertook to transform her head to toe infuriated her mother, who suffered alone in silence and in grief. So, as Professor Smock has put it, “it was a treacherous rescue, a generous swindle.”

My mother felt nothing any more but hate and contempt for the woman who’d saved our lives. Better to go live in a hotel than stay with her a second longer. [58]

Kofman was among the many Jewish children who were entrusted to non-Jewish households during the war. Their survival forced them to forsake the teachings of their parents and religious creed. Depending upon the fate of the birth parents, the foster families sometimes did not want to give up the children. This memoir therefore evokes the painful dilemma that survival came at the expense of assimilation which, inevitably, led to the decadence of a culture that was already weakened and at stake.

85 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

[108] Lust, Caution – Eileen Chang

lust2.jpgThis post will wrap up all I have to say about the book and the story. This is a book review, please click here for the film review. Note this book review might be spoiler for the film.

Lust, Caution is a short story that was originally published in the Chinese language in 1979. Eileen Chang began writing the espionage thriller teeming with love’s turmoil in the early 1950s and came back to work through the resolving details in the 1970s, imbuing to her already mocking tone and acrimonious words an autobiographical touch. For Chang herself, like the heroine Wang Chia Chih, entered into a liaison with a member of the resistance government after Hong Kong fell, but she painfully broke off relations with him on discovery of his adultery, after years of her providing financial succor.

Wang Chia Chih has been an active member of the drama club at the university. While at college in Canton (now Guangzhou), on the eve of surrender, she has starred in a stirring of rousingly patriotic history plays. Before Hong Kong falls to the Japanese on December 25, 1941 (black Christmas), the drama troupe has given one last performance. When leader of the cliche, Kuang Yu Min strikes up friendship with an aide to Wong Ching Wei, the man who will soon negotiate with the Japanese over forming a collaborationist government in China, Kuang is seized with a whim to hunt down traitors. He plans to stage a real drama–a honey trap–for one Mr. Yee. As Mr. Yee is in the espionage business himself, he suspects conspiracies even when they don’t exist. Any indiscretion is out of the question, which means, preparation allows no room for a tiny mistake.

Wang Chia Chih will act as a bait that will guide Yee toward an assassin’s bullet. She will be the fatal seductress who presents herself as a wife of a wealthy business, befriends Yee’s wife, infiltrates the Yee’s social life. Her priority is to win his trust and appear credible, even if the liaison will entail sadistic sexual affair. (Obviously Ang Lee has visualized what Chang has implied in between the lines.) After the first attempt has reached a dead end, she resolves to see it through years later when she reconnects with the troupe in Shanghai. The plan takes an unexpected turn as Wang’s (disguised as Mai Tai-tai) romantic misjudgment leads her to gullible attachment to an emotionally unprincipled and sterile political animal. Despite her fierce skepticism toward her feeling in love with him, she finds herself unable to refute the notion entirely, since she has never been love.

She has sacrificed her virginity for this patriotic cause.

This skeptical disavowal and subversion of transcendent values–patriotism, love, and trust–expresses Chang’s ambivalent view of the human heart. Far beyond its specific autobiographical resonances, Lust, Caution serves as a riposte to the needling criticisms by her literary contemporaries that she has written way outside of mainstream, sidelining big, significant issues like nation, progress, war and revolution. Unlike most of her other works in which war and politics constitute no more than an incidental backdrop, helping to create exceptional situations, Lust, Caution puts all these issues in the spotlight but still manages to delineate plausibly, complex, conflicted individuals whose confusions, frustrations, disappointments and selfishness amount to a strong socialist realism during a turbulent political period.