Sunday, March 3, 2013

Field Gray

Philip Kerr's Field Gray (Penguin, 2010) starts up right where If the Dead Rise Not leaves off, in a brothel in Cuba.  (Pretty much all of If the Dead Rise Not takes place in a brothel in Cuba)  I was not thrilled with this, in fact as with most books lately it took me more than a few pages and a couple of start to get into it.  But once in, I can say with conviction that this may be the best Bernie Gunther story yet.

Now, do I remember ALL the details of the Berlin Noir trilogy, so that I can make that statement even more certitude?  Well, no.  If you haven't read any of these, you should do yourself the favor of reading them in order of publication.  It's a terrific journey through the cataclysm of WW2.  Every story in the Gunther series is complicated, and the more recent are even more so than the earlier ones.  As with its predecessor, Field Gray moves back and forth in time to trace the story over the cataclysmic arc of WW2 and the nascent Cold War.  Gunther falls into the hands of the Americans while boating around Cuba in the mid-1950s, and they soon realize that he is the key to landing a very big Cold War intelligence fish.  It all has to do with his service as a cop in Berlin in the 1930s, and then his actions as an SS officer in France and the Ukraine during the war, and then as a POW in the USSR afterwards.  Kerr's ability to draw out the story in these multiple locations and time periods, adding and subtracting characters and plot threads, is breathtaking.  You should pay attention while reading this, so you don't get hopelessly lost, but you'll want to because as usual, Kerr deploys his great noir style.
    "She was wearing a bright print percale dress with a hear-shaped button waistline, a lacy collar, and cute puff sleeves.  The print was a riot of red and white fruit and flowers on a solid black background.  She looked like a market garden at midnight.  On her head was a little white trilby with a red silk ribbon, as if the hat were a cake and it was someone's birthday.  Mine perhaps.  Which, of course, it was.  The smell of sweat on her body was honest and more provocative to me than some expensive, cloying scent.  Underneath the midnight garden was a real woman with skin on every part of her body, and organs and glands and all the other things about women I know I liked but had almost forgotten.  Because it was the kind of day when girls like Elisabeth were wearing summer dresses gain, and I remembered just what a long winter it had been in Berlin, sleeping in that cave with just my dreams for company."  (103)

Now, since the contemporary plot line in this particular story has much to do with Bernie's pre-war and war-time service, much of that backstory is presented through lengthy interviews between Bernie and his American captors-cum-handlers.  It is a little annoying at first - come on, who can really recall ALL THAT detail? - and is reminiscent of the didactic quality of the last Bruno novel I read.  But it grows on you as the story itself deepens and becomes more compelling, and it all comes together toward the end anyway so you kind of forget that you found it an irritant at the start.

And, there's that prescience that rings a touch false - an SS officer who is deeply rattled by being ordered to kill Jewish women and children in the Ukraine (78-79), or the kind of hilarious comment by a CIA agent about whether the prize they're trying to capture will in fact come along to the US.
    "'You're forgetting Mielke's wife, Gertrud, aren't you?  And doesn't he have a son now?  Frank?  He won't want to leave them, surely.'
'We're not forgetting them at all,' said Sheuer.  'But I rather think that Erich will.  From everything we know about him, he's not the sentimental sort.  Besides, he can always apply for them to come to the West as well.  And it's not like there's a wall that's stopping them from coming.'"  (409)

But back to that officer in the Ukraine for a moment, for the central conceit of the Bernie Gunther series is that while he operates reasonably successfully within the state organizations of the police and the security service after the Nazis come to power and during the war, he manages to never drink their kool-aid.  The ambivalence writes well, in fact there's an excellent sequence where Gunther (and many others) think that since France fell so easily in 1940, maybe this while world-conquest business won't be so bloody after all.
    "To defeat France as quickly as we did seemed nothing short of miraculous.  You have to bear in mind that many of us sat in the trenches of northern France for four years.  Four years of slaughter and stalemate. And then a victory over our oldest enemy in just four weeks!  You didn't have to be a Nazi to feel good about that.  And if I'm honest, the summer of 1940 was when I came the closest to thinking well of the Nazis.  Indeed, that was the time when being a Nazi hardly seemed to matter.  Suddenly, we were all proud to be German again."  (138)
Yes!  Accurate historical contextualizing, that makes it all make sense for a moment.

But just for a moment because of course we all know that the Nazi's policies concerning Jews were already well-entrenched at this point.  And while Gunther's disgust at the conditions in which German prisoners were kept in Vichy camps is justified (188-201), it's hard to imagine he wasn't comparing it to the conditions in which prisoners were kept in Germany and her satellites by then.  In college, I studied with the late Klemens von Klemperer, whose life work as a historian was to show that there had been resistance in Nazi Germany, that there was good there, that the German response to the Final Solution was not uniformly willful blindness to the horrors of the Holocaust.  KvK believed that by chronicling the German resistance he was perhaps providing example and inspiration to those today who fight against oppression and totalitarianism.  I like this idea of activist history, of course in part because of KvK's genteel European overlay.  But just this weekend, we learn that we have not known the full scope of the Nazi efforts to eradicate those whom they deemed undesirable from the face of the earth.  While this does not surprise me, it does deepen the ambivalence that I can't help but feel about Germany, Germans, my own German heritage.  And to raise the question, as KvK's work did, what would YOU have done?  So Bernie Gunther, with all his efforts to walk that very thin line between falling into the Nazi abyss, and doing anything about it, turns out to be just an average human - no hero - after all.

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