“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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“Death And The Dancing Footman” by Ngaio Marsh (1942)

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“On the afternoon of a Thursday early in 1940, Jonathan Royal sat in his library at Highfold Manor.”

As the sunshine finally breaks through and the northern half of the planet remembers that spring exists, I instead make my way back to the 1940s to a snowy scene of murder and mystery. Yes, it’s a return to the works of Ngaio Marsh, the woman I’m currently interviewing as a replacement for Agatha Christie. Both women are hugely regarded in their field, and people it seems tend to view one or the other as superior. My loyalty remains to Christie, but Marsh is certainly not one to be trifled with.

Jonathan Royal is throwing a party, but not just any party. As he tells his first guest, his friend the playwright Aubrey Mandrake, each of the other guests has been specifically invited to create the most drama possible. For a start, there’s no love loss between brothers William and Nicholas Compline. Chloris Wynne was first engaged to Nicholas, and is now set to marry William. Their mother, Sandra Compline, dislikes the woman, adores Nicholas and all but ignores William, the son who dotes on her. As if this wasn’t enough, Royal also invites Francis Hart, a plastic surgeon who is the man responsible for the failed surgery on Sandra’s face that has left her with a tragic appearance. He is enamoured, so it seems, with Elisa Lisse, the woman responsible for the break down of Nicholas and Chloris’ engagement. Completing the set is Royal’s cousin and Lisse’s rival, Lady Hersey Amblington. Everyone has accepted the invitation unaware of the fellow guests, and now they’ve all arrived, fireworks are sure to fly.

Things, however, begin to get out of hand when the arguments are slightly bigger than Royal perhaps imagined they might be. A snowstorm traps everyone in Highfold Manor, many miles from the nearest town, and the phones are cut off. As tensions rise and secrets are revealed, nasty events that can hardly be called accidents begin to happen to some of the guests. Everyone feels their lives are in danger. And then one of the party is found dead. As everyone professes their innocence, it can only be the case that someone is lying. It all seems to hang on the testimony of Thomas, the dancing footman…

Not that I didn’t enjoy my first tromp into Marsh’s work, Surfeit of Lampreys, I found this one much more engaging. Sure, it took me a while to get through (part of that is due to having started watching The Crown on Netflix) but it’s been a while since characters leapt quite so readily off the page. Each one appeared to be very visually and so the action seemed all the more intense. There are plenty of red herrings abounds in the story, as is the nature of the genre, but by now I’d managed to pick up on a couple of them and saw them for what they were. However, it doesn’t mean I caught them all, and I still didn’t get the solution, although I think a couple of extra clues and I would have done.

A tricky novel, but one that is clearly enjoying itself very much.

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)

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What’s the catch?

“It was love at first sight.”

In my ongoing mission to see if reading the classics makes me a better person, I come roaring down the runway to meet Catch-22, said to be, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the greatest American novels of the last century. Despite knowing it spawned a phrase from its title and that it featured army pilots, much else of the detail had escaped me.

Captain Yossarian is a pilot assigned to the Mediterranean island of Pianosa. He’s furious because people keep trying to kill him, which may have something to do with the fact it’s the height of the Second World War. He is desperate that he should return home alive but his officers keep upping the number of missions he has to complete before he can go. The only way out is to declare he’s crazy, but there’s a catch. Catch-22 in fact.

If he refuses to fly the missions, then he must be sane, so he has to fly them. If he accepts the missions, he’s obviously crazy because only a madman would want to fly during a war, and he doesn’t have to do them. That’s one hell of a catch. Surrounded by friends and enemies – some of whom are on the same side – Yossarian must find a way to keep his head while losing it and make it out of the war alive, without sacrificing another friend. But it’s not going to be as easy as that, as everyone is plotting to keep themselves safe too.

28-year-old Captain Yossarian is the main character and is determined to survive the war, eventually refusing to fly anymore, but it’s hard to say that there are any minor characters. Most chapters take the name of a character and show their involvement in the unfolding drama. The list of characters is enormous but includes: Colonel Cathcart (who continually raises the number of missions the men have to fly), Doc Daneeka (self-obsessed medical man), Milo Minderbinder (who is running a syndicate and only does things if they gain him a profit), Nately (who has fallen in love with a prostitute), Scheisskopf (who is obsessed with parades), Clevinger (who disappears on a flight one day), Major —— de Coverley (who is feared but rarely seen), Major Major (who can only be visited while he’s out of his office), General Dreedle (who is apathetic towards war unless the men fight and die on demand), Nurse Duckett (who sleeps with Yossarian), Hungry Joe (a pervert and photographer), Orr (a bomber pilot who always crashes), McWatt (who seems crazy because he has remained sane), Sergeant Towser (de facto head of the squadron),  and Chief White Halfoat (a Native American whose family had to keep moving because they always settled where oil was found). That’s barely half of them. It’s an amazing cast and everyone feels nicely sketched out and there aren’t any superfluous cast members. It’s just a task remembering who’s who and who outranks who else. I need a diagram.

The confusion of characters is compounded by the fact that the story doesn’t follow a strictly linear path, and jumps about in the timeline showing the same events from different angles. Personally, my favourite characters are Yossarian, Major Major and Chaplain Shipman, and would happily have taken a story just about those three.

A primary theme of the novel is paradox. Aside from the central one of being too mad to fly, every other page seems to contain someone making a statement and then saying the opposite immediately afterwards, either forming a joke or sometimes to highlight the insanity of the world they inhabit. Early on we see a character described as, “good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.” Nately at one point declares, “Anything worth living for is worth dying for”, only to be told in return, “Everything worth dying for is certainly worth living for.” People adopt one another’s personas and illnesses in hospital to confound doctors and keep themselves in there longer and away from the planes they have to fly. The world here is a complicated mess where people are brought up against their superiors for not doing things, mediocrity is applauded and dead people are thought to be alive and the living are considered dead.

Frankly, my biggest issue comes down to the novel’s length. Yes, it definitely is funny, but I’d got the joke by about 150 pages in, and my edition clocks in at over 500. That’s a lot of extra time spent on something I thought we’d already covered. However, in saying that, it needs the ending it has. Towards the end, the jokes and lighthearted mood is stripped away and we see the true horror of war for what it really is. War is, after all, not a joke, and the stark reality of it hits you in the face like Orr being hit in the head with a woman’s shoe.

I’m not a bit sorry I read it, and I can see why it’s lingered. Heller has done something pretty cool here, but rather unlike anything I’ve read before.

“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.

“Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes (2012)

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And he's führious.

And he’s führious.

“It was probably the German people, the Volk, which surprised me most of all.”

Speaking of monsters, there is one man who is considered the most monstrous of all. Hitler is a figure so universally hated that his name has become a byword for all that is wrong and evil in the world. Before we get going, I am going to state for the record here and now that what Hitler did was wrong. Genocide is wrong. War is wrong. His belief system was screwy and the man was quite possibly mad. I neither condone or support the atrocities he caused or allowed to occur. I shouldn’t have to say that, because it should be obvious.

Unfortunately, in this very difficult review, I have some things to say that I never thought I would. Let’s begin.

Look Who’s Back came out in Germany a couple of years ago where, as you can imagine, it shocked and appalled the German people. Hitler is, naturally, a very taboo subject in the country and so to write a novel from his point of view was something that could have gone very, very wrong. As it was, Vermes has done it very, very right. The basic plot is as follows.

In 2011, Hitler wakes up in Berlin, disorientated and unable to remember anything beyond sitting with Eva Braun in the Führerbunker. Now, he’s almost seventy years ahead of that time, wondering what on earth has happened to his country. It’s now run by a dumpy woman, full of immigrants, and none of the people are saluting him. He is taken in by a newspaper vendor and, through the papers, learns much of what he’s missed. Some of it impresses him, but there’s precious little of that.

He begins to attract attention and soon broadcasting people are interested in this man who refuses to give his real name or break character for even a second. Convinced that he is the most realistic Hitler impersonator they’ve ever seen, he is offered a part on a popular comedy show. After his first appearance, people aren’t quite sure what to make of him, but he goes viral and discovers that people are willing to listen to him, even if they are laughing. So while he cannot understand why no one seems to accept him for who he is, the people nonetheless begin to worship him…

I think the most difficult thing about this is the fact that it forces us to remember that Hitler was not a monster or a dragon, but a human being and, like all human beings, was therefore a patchwork of good and bad. This Hitler is not an evil dictator. His ideas, for the most part, are naturally unthinkable to the average reader, but he is not portrayed as ruthless in his manner, or shown to be gunning people down himself. He is, above all else, a politician and an orator, a charismatic leader who, now struggling to come to terms with the events between his first death and second birth, is naive in the ways of the modern world. He forms an oddly sympathetic character, fascinated by computers and the Internet, but unable to understand why everyone is laughing at him and no one recognises him for being the real deal.

This is actually far scarier than him shouting.

This is actually far scarier than him shouting.

I think that that was always the most terrifying thing about Hitler; his humanity. He was charming. He liked children and animals. He supported adoption, reduced unemployment, encouraged development of the Volkswagen, and eliminated foreign debt. And yet, despite that, he still ordered the deaths of millions. We can dress him up as evil incarnate as much as we like, but evil for the sake of evil doesn’t exist. Hitler believed that he was doing the right thing for his country. I am not supporting his actions, they were atrocious, I am merely saying that he, like everyone else before and since, exists in shades of grey rather than a black/white morality.

The book deals with absurdities of modern life, of how technology has advanced to such a point that another Hitler would be even more dangerous (imagine what he could do with the Internet’s audience) and also seems to study the guilt that Germany is left with. After all, Hitler didn’t appear from nowhere first time round. He was elected, and people did his bidding. How much was “brainwashing” and how much was willingly done? It’s also about the cult of celebrity that the Western world now has, as we now seem to rank celebrities above almost all other news.

The supporting cast of characters are also excellent. His young staff are at first nervous about what he’s doing, but they can’t argue with the ratings and it also helps that Hitler misinterprets their positive comments about his work as being positive comments about his beliefs and plans for the future of Germany. Practically all of the dialogue is double-speak, with Hitler and the modern Germans having different intentions and understandings of what is being said. The strongest example is probably when Madame Bellini, a TV executive, warns him off making Jewish ‘jokes’ with the words, “The Jews are no laughing matter”. Hitler misunderstands this and thinks that she means that her opinion of the Jews is like his. Incredibly awkward.

My one flaw? At the end of the book are a few pages giving a few more details on Hitler’s backstory, as well as information about other prominent Nazis and modern Germans who are mentioned. While good, this could really have done with being at the front, although I did read this before beginning. While this book is naturally going to be controversial, I nonetheless think that it is an excellent read. Sometimes it’s written in quite a dense, political style, but I’m told that this is merely mirroring the style of Mein Kampf, which makes the whole thing even more intelligent.

It’s a smart, scary book, and yet another reminder of how wrong humans have been in the past, and that we must strive to never let someone like this get into power again.

“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.

“N Or M?” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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n or m“Tommy Beresford removed his overcoat in the hall of the flat.”

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are unique in the Christie canon as they are the only protagonists she has that age in time with the real world. When we first met them, they were in their twenties and simply old friends. They turned up again a little later, now married. As it is, the world has now changed greatly, and so have our heroes. It’s 1940, war is upon us, and with two grown up children and middle age descending unwelcomingly over their lives, the pair are once again bored. The war effort doesn’t want them, and they need something to do.

And then a Mr Grant turns up and offers Tommy a job in Scotland, involving some top secret paperwork. Once Tuppence leaves, however, Grant changes this offer – Tommy is to go undercover in the search of Fifth Columnists on the south coast. Ashamed of having to hide the truth from Tuppence, he nonetheless heads off to the hotel Sans Souci to do his sleuthing. Upon arrival, he meets the various residents which include the ditzy young mother Mrs Sprot, fearsome Irishwoman Mrs O’Roarke, German refugee Carl von Deinim, blustering old soldier Major Bletchley and Tuppence Beresford.

As it turns out, little gets past her – she heard of the plans and beat Tommy down here to join in the search. Now under their guises of Mr Meadows and Mrs Blenkensop, they must investigate all the staff and residents of the Sans Souci, any of whom could be taking secrets from the British and sharing them with the Nazis. And after Tuppence overhears a phone call in the hotel, they soon find that they may be very quickly running out of time. They must find out the true identities of the mysterious N and M.

The five Tommy and Tuppence novels are different to the Christie fare, as I’ve said before and all other readers have noted. The focus is less on the whodunnit, and more on having adventures. These are spy novels; thrillers rather than the cosy crime we expect of Marple and Poirot. This doesn’t make them any less interesting, however. There is still a mystery element, but the action is fast-paced and the tropes of adventure are present.

Tommy remains solid and stalwart, but it is Tuppence who I prefer of the two. A heroine in her forties – a rare thing indeed, the only other one I could name right now is Thursday Next – but refusing to accept that women are weaker than men. In fact, the novel is packed with strong female characters. Tuppence doesn’t falter when the call comes, indeed, doesn’t even get the call but answers anyway. She is a wonderful creation.

The story has a few odd contrivances, such as a perfectly placed bar of soap, and a bizarre moment when someone communicates in Morse code via snoring. Still, you go with it, and you want the heroes to thrive. Like many Christie books (sadly), there is a touch of racism about the thing, but in this case it is fairly justified, the characters being English people during World War Two, who are naturally unfriendly towards the Germans. This makes Carl von Deinim the prime suspect, but surely that’s too easy, isn’t it? However, the book makes an acceptance that while the Nazis are deplorable, it is not all the German people. Tuppence feels pity for those German mothers who have lost their sons at war. Still, there’s a number of comments along the lines of describing people as having Prussian faces and distinctly un-British jawlines.

This is a great, fun book which plays with your expectations and keeps you hooked until the surprising conclusion. The Beresfords return again in By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, which will undoubtedly be on this blog before too long as well.

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