“Mendelssohn Is On The Roof” by Jiří Weil (1960)

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“Antonin Becvar and Josef Stankovsky were on the roof, walking around the statues.”

As a general rule, I try and avoid books that heavily feature the Holocaust and the dark days of the Second World War, but there are exceptions, of course. It’s a part of our history that I simply cannot fathom and I find the whole area so depressing to think about that I decided a while ago to not read fiction about it. Of course it’s an important historical event and I’m not suggesting otherwise, but with so much awful stuff going on in the world, it’s not unreasonable I feel to want to read things that are a bit more upbeat. I was duped, however, when I saw this book on a friend’s shelf and, intrigued by the title and blurb, bought myself a copy.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof takes place in Nazi-occupied Prague during in 1942. The city has been ravaged, with Jews kicked out and either sent to ghettos or killed. An official concert is due to be performed soon, but the Nazis have discovered that one of the statues on the concert hall is of Felix Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer. The order is given to have the statue removed, but none of the Nazis know which one he is. They decide to go for the one with the biggest nose – unfortunately, that’s Wagner…

While the Nazis try to find a scholarly Jew left in the city, elsewhere other events have begun to unfold. A man has an incurable disease that is slowly tuning him to stone. Two children are hidden away behind a wardrobe so they can’t sent off. An architect is commissioned to design a set of gallows for an upcoming execution. The Gestapo continue to torment and torture anyone they see fit, never having to take responsibility for their actions. As the world descends into chaos, there seems little hope left for anyone.

What makes the book all the more haunting, of course, is that Weil was there. Born in 1900, he was assigned to work at the Jewish Museum in Prague, and when he was summoned to go and live in the ghetto, he instead staged his death and spent the rest of the war hiding in apartments and, in one case, a hospital. This is almost certainly what makes the book’s horror so visceral. Although billed as a “darkly comic” novel, the emphasis is most certainly on the first of those words. While the set up and first few chapters are quite humorous as we see the Germans struggle to comply with their orders, it quickly descends from farce to tragedy, and by the end there is nothing but doom, gloom and the horrific events of one of the darkest moments in our history.

Perhaps overwhelmed by the awful events that befall the characters, I admit that I got a bit lost throughout it and was never quite able to keep everyone’s names straight, meaning it would often be a couple of paragraphs before I realised which character we’d gone back to. The story lines weave together at random, with occasional overlap. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding many of them, and there’s not really a happy ending for anyone here. The true abhorrence of the Nazi party’s “final solution” and way of dealing with the “Jewish problem” are writ large and it makes for very difficult reading.

Of course it’s an important book, and it’s artfully done, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s enjoyable. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to read these accounts from someone who was actually there. A few of them remain, but it won’t be long before this chapter of humanity is consigned entirely to the history books. We cannot let its important diminish.

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“Passenger To Frankfurt” by Agatha Christie (1970)

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“Fasten your seat-belts, please.”

Some things get better with age; a fine wine, a smelly cheese, unwashed jeans. Other things are better then they’re younger, and I hate to be the one to say this given my overwhelming love of her, but Agatha Christie is definitely part of the latter group. It’s suggested now that by the end of her life she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but it was never diagnosed at the time. It’s without question though that even for a fan, her later books simply do not stack up to the earlier ones. I’ve noted this before with Postern of Fate and Nemesis, but I think it’s especially evident here.

The story begins with diplomat Sir Stafford Nye flying home from Malaya. His plane is rerouted, and while waiting for the next connection, he is approached by a woman who wishes to borrow his passport and cloak so that she can get home safely and avoid the people who are trying to kill her. Nye decides that his life needs a touch of excitement, and agrees.

However, without knowing, he has endangered his own life, and a while later he meets the woman again, although this time she has an entirely different name and it’s quite clear he’s not meant to acknowledge their having met before. Soon, Nye is caught up in an international mystery that will take him and his new companion around the world on the hunt of an invisible and dangerous enemy. There is much danger afoot, with stories that the student protests going on around the world have a much more sinister motive. And could it be that the rumours are true – did Adolf Hitler really survive the war?

This book was released for Christie’s eightieth birthday and it makes me wonder if people were now too afraid to edit her, given her reputation as such a great author. Robert Barnard, crime writer and critic, noted; “Prizes should be offered to readers who can explain the ending.” Unfortunately, I have to agree with him. The novel bounces around a whole host of characters, many of whom seem to have more than one alias (although that might just be me being confused) and covers all manner of topics. The beginning is engaging enough, but I found my attention wandering quite a lot until you reach a point over halfway through when you’re wondering why they’re talking about Hitler’s possible son who was raised in Argentina with a swastika branded on his foot and why no one’s been killed in an old country house.

One particularly notable inclusion is Mr Robinson, a secretive financier who seems to have fingers in a lot of pies and knows a lot about the world’s money. He is notable in that he ties together much of Agatha Christie’s fictional universe, having had dealings with Poirot, Marple and Tommy & Tuppence over the years. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book isn’t actually part of the story. It features an introduction in which Christie herself explains to the reader how she would ideally answer anyone who asks her, “Where do you get your ideas from?” As a writer myself, I found it honest and hilarious.

There’s a touch of fantasy about this one, and it’s all a little strange and unwieldy. A completist would, of course, find it necessary to read this, but in general, Christie’s novels of the 1970s are not ones you’d ever really recommend. They can’t all be winners, I suppose.

 

“The Man In The High Castle” by Philip K. Dick (1962)

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A chilling alternate world

A chilling alternate world

“For a week Mr R Childan had been anxiously watching the mail.”

It’s been a busy week so it’s taken me longer than usual to plow through a relatively small book. What with the Olympics, the wedding of one of my best friends, the necessary post-wedding day of recovery, illness and the fact I’ve been getting through two books at the same time (the second to come soon), it’s taken me longer than I anticipated to make my way through this modern classic. Have these distractions affected my view of the book? Almost certainly. But first, on with the plot.

This book is set in an alternate 1963, in a divided USA ruled half by Germany and half by Japan, because this is a world where the Allies lost World War Two, and the Nazis and Japanese ended up all but taking over the planet. In this nightmarish vision of what-might-have-been, we follow several characters as they find their way through the world. Mr Childan is a shopkeeper specialising in Americana antiques, who comes to believe his reputation is tarnished after discovering he has been tricked into selling forgeries. Mr Tagomi is a Japanese businessman seeking the perfect gift for a client, and is struggling to do business with another man, Baynes, who keeps putting off any transactions.

Frank Frink is a Jew who has begun making homemade jewellery with the hopes of selling it off and making his money from it. His ex-wife, Juliana, is a judo instructor who has begun a sexual relationship with an Italian truck driver called Joe, who introduces her to a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is banned in many parts of the world because it depicts an alternate universe – one in which the Allies won the war.

Their stories interweave and overlap as they navigate a life that we can only gaze at in horror. Here, the surviving Jews have mostly had to undergo facial restructuring and name changes to avoid detection in society. Slavery is legal, Africa has been all but wiped out thanks to further genocide, the Japanese influence on the world means that everyone makes decisions based on their readings of the I Ching, and Hitler is still alive, although very ill. The main point of divergence seems to come when FDR is assassinated, and thus the USA don’t have the leadership to perform well in battle, and are still undergoing a Depression when the war starts. Here, the Allies surrender in 1947.

The idea of the “story within a story” of what would happen had the Allies won is a really interesting concept, and the version of events in that story play out somewhat differently to what really happened too, giving us three versions of reality by the time we’re done. It’s a nice meta touch. In true Philip K. Dick form, however, many things are left unanswered, character arcs seem to go unfinished, and there’s not a real sense of conclusion about any of it. At least, I never felt there was. It’s a really interesting idea, and one that literature has explored frequently (in alternate history writing, I’m sure “What if Hitler had won the war?” must be the most common starting point), but I’ve seen it done better.

The jewellery-making subplot I find boring, and I never really clicked with Mr Tagomi. I find Mr Childan’s clumsy attempts to not offend his new Japanese friends quite endearing, and Juliana Frink is an incredible character and the most interesting by far. I understand why it’s a modern classic, and I think it’s an important, intelligent novel, and while it may be one of the first novels to properly explore a world where the Axis powers won, it isn’t the best one. Even Stephen Fry’s Making History is a more engaging example. It’s a novel worth reading for some really inventive ideas, but it’s never going to be a favourite of mine.

“The House Of Rumour” by Jake Arnott (2012)

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Found at 17 Idle-Gossip Road

Found at 17 Idle-Gossip Road

“I still look up to the stars for some sort of meaning.”

Rumours are odd things. Once ignited, they either fizzle out due to lack of interest, or they explode like fireworks and pepper the world with their, sometimes dangerous, fallout. During World War II, rumour was everywhere, and both the Allies and Axis powers wanted to know what was going on with the other side. But among all of this were the ordinary people, some of them connected to the bigger picture, but others not. Our stories all interweave and in this novel, weaving stories join up with rumourmongering and the tarot to create an immense tapestry, providing a possible history of the last seventy years.

At its core, this is the story of a manuscript containing official secrets that is passed through the hands of various people from secret agents to prostitutes, from actors to science fiction writers, from 1941 up until the present day. However, the book is so much more than that. It’s about Rudolf Hess’s bizarre journey to Scotland during the war, the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, the possible existence of alien life, the evolving form of science fiction, and the all-consuming nature of cults.

Each chapter is named for one of the Major Arcana trump cards in a tarot deck, and each one has a different narrator, style, mission and tale. They are out of order, the book leaping backwards and forwards through seventy years, building up a picture of what might have occured. The story is bookended with the narration of Larry Zagorski, a science fiction writer who becomes quite well-known through his life for his excellent novels and short stories. In the 1940s, he is a starving artist, selling stories to magazines for mere pennies, but his skill and acclaim grow over the years. He would be an interesting enough narrator on his own, but the story expands extensively from his version of events.

“The Moon” tells the story of what happened when Hess left Germany and flew to Scotland. “Adjustment” is the tale of Larry’s teenage sweetheart Mary-Lou and her foray into the world of science fiction filmmaking. “The Magician” is the story of Ian Fleming (yes, that one) while he still worked for the secret services and his meetings with Aleister Crowley (yes, that one). “The Hanged Man” is the document that is being passed through various hands, written by secret agent Marius Trevelyan. And “The Tower” is Larry’s biography from an outsider.

While occasionally convoluted, the story does eventually tie up and provides a possible explanation to what led Hess to make his strange journey, what UFOs might actually be, and where Ian Fleming got his ideas for his novels from. It’s a dense tale, but the characters are very human and even Hess comes across as simply a man who was easily led and dangerously infatuated with Hitler, rather than a force for evil. He was, after all, attempting a peace mission.

The use of the tarot cards for the basic structure is a clever one, as the book is about the future and the occult. Science and magic get confused here, even moreso once L. Ron Hubbard turns up, having convinced himself that his novels are accounts of things that really happened, but everyone, whatever their belief system, is thinking about the future. A few of the tarot names are changed (Justice becomes Adjustment, Strength becomes Lust, Temperance becomes Art) but these are reflected in the story.

There’s a continuing theme throughout also about the place science fiction has in society throughout history. In the forties, the future still seems far away, but as Larry and Mary-Lou grow up, the things they wrote about – space travel, atomic weapons – become reality. There’s a suggestion that science fiction writers are the real prophets of the planet, always second-guessing the future and then becoming obsolete when it arrives. By the end, Larry even notes that in the thirties he wrote a story set on Mars in 2011, the year he’s now living in. There’s a moment of sadness as his discusses that humanity was turned in on itself. Where once it used to look out to the stars and seek answers, now it seems unable to think outside of the atmosphere. Even most of the satellites we’ve sent up since 1972 are there just to look back down on Earth, he laments.

It’s a book that requires your brain, but that’s never a bad thing, and it’s definitely a fun and engaging tale, providing you can keep on top of who everyone is and enjoy genre switches as routine. A smart blend of fact and fiction.