The Lady in the Back Seat
Robert Harris’s first novel, Fatherland (1992), was a counterfactual historical thriller set in Nazi Germany in 1964. In the alternative reality of the book, Germany defeated the Soviet Union in the Caucasus in 1943, lured the Royal Navy to its destruction after learning that the British had cracked the Enigma code, and intimidated the United States into signing a peace treaty by successfully testing an atom bomb and launching an intercontinental V3 rocket across the Atlantic. Now Hitler’s 75th birthday is approaching, and a historic summit is planned between the Führer and President Joseph Kennedy, as nearly twenty years of Cold War between the world’s two superpowers look set to thaw.
And then the corpse of Josef Bühler, the one-time state secretary of the General Government, washes up in a lake on the outskirts of Berlin. Xavier March, a Sturmbannführer in the Kriminalpolizei – in his early forties, divorced, a bit of an outsider, superficially cynical but inclined to do the right thing when it comes to the crunch (you know the type) – is assigned to the case. With the help of a beautiful young New York Times journalist, March uncovers a vast conspiracy, reaching all the way to the highest echelons of power: the Gestapo, it seems, is quietly disposing of everyone who attended a secret Nazi conference that took place at Wannsee on 20 January 1942.
The unspeakable secret at the heart of this thriller is, unusually, something that every reader already knows. Fatherland’s revelation that the authorities have been covering up the destruction of the European Jews is in some ways disappointing; you have been expecting to be surprised, and aren’t. But then another reaction kicks in, a shame response to the disappointment: imagine what it would be like not to know; imagine discovering for the first time that six million people had been systematically murdered in a network of secret death camps – this is not a fact to be taken for granted.
And yet, however successfully it generates unease in the complacent reader, and for all its efficiency as a thriller, full of exciting chases, double-crosses, torture, escape and recapture, Fatherland is based on a flawed – and, despite the dystopian setting, unduly optimistic – premise: that the disclosure of the Final Solution by a worn-out cop and rookie journalist could threaten to destabilise a victorious world power and scupper the possibility of rapprochement between Germany and the United States. In the world Harris has created, the exposure of the Holocaust might provide a handy reason to back away from détente were America looking for such an excuse, but otherwise it would surely be tactfully ignored: governments, after all, have a knack for overlooking all kinds of human rights abuse, unless a cause for moral outrage happens to coincide with the national interest or the perpetrators have already been defeated and stripped of power.
The ways in which reality is tweaked in Enigma (1995), Harris’s second novel, are more modest. As in Fatherland, the Germans have somehow ascertained that the British are able to decipher the codes produced by their Enigma machines. The man recalled to Bletchley Park to enable the British to regain the upper hand in the cryptographic struggle is not Alan Turing, however, but a neurotic Cambridge mathematician who fancies girls: Tom Jericho’s heart has been broken by a cruel, icy blonde who has mysteriously gone missing from Bletchley. Investigating her disappearance, Jericho also finds time to solve the mystery of how the Germans got to know that the code had been cracked. That Harris manages, ingeniously, to provide the traitor with an unimpeachable motive for betraying Allied secrets to the Nazis is, if anything, even more impressive than his well-paced storytelling.
After Archangel (1998), based on the ludicrous premise that Stalin’s secret love child and doppelgänger has been holed up in Russia’s frozen north for half a century – why not just have the man himself cryogenically frozen, or transported into the future by a time-travelling demon from another dimension? – Harris turned his attention from the cataclysms of the 20th century to those of ancient Rome. Pompeii (2003) is concerned with corruption in the city shortly before its destruction; the novel ends with the eruption of Vesuvius. And Imperium (2006) is a fictionalised account of the life of Cicero narrated by his loyal amanuensis, the inventor of shorthand, Marcus Tullius Tiro.
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