I’ve not been sure whether to say anything about this or not – partly because I’ve nothing interesting to say and partly because I haven’t actually finished it. On the other hand, contra the latter I’ve read it before and know how it ends. Contra the former, I never have anything interesting to say anyway.
I’ve been rereading Fatherland, for constructive purposes – it’s the closest thing in the house to the novel I’m writing now, and I wouldn’t mind learning from it a little. I’ve been trying to look in depth at the craft of various passages to improve my own writing. In the process, I found myself unable to stop reading when I wanted, and I’ve now accidentally read almost all of it.
You all know what Fatherland is and what it’s about. It’s the sort of book its easy to disparage – the idea is only interesting to people who’ve never heard of genre fiction before, it’s mostly shallow and cliched, and it’s clearly intended more to be a bestseller than to be a great novel.
However, I think Fatherland is a good example of why it’s easy for the experienced to become jaded, lazy in their opinions. Just because a book is popular does not make it bad. Just because it set out to be popular doesn’t make it bad. In fact, while there may be the occasional inexplicable exception (usually related to the marketing of specific genres to people not normally aware of them: the DaVinci code received much popular praise because of its subject matter, which to many people was groundbreaking – even though, of course, it was only groundbreaking to sheltered readers; likewise, Twilight (which I haven’t read, but which I hear to be terrible) has marketed urban vampire fiction into a teenage mass market that hasn’t been familiar with the genre; Harry Potter broke out into a market that didn’t read fantasy, even though very similar works had been around for decades for people paying attention to that genre), being popular requires being at least partially good. Being readable is as much a skill as being deep or meaningful or beautiful. Given that I, a fairly jaded reader who had read the book before, began by looking at sentence structure and paragraph balence and ended up reading entire chapters at a time, I can hardly deny that there is a certain sort of magic in it.
There is not, however, as much magic as many people think. In particular, the setting is greatly lauded – but even while I haven’t read, for instance, The Man in the High Castle, I nonetheless did not find it either as original or as compelling as is usually said. In originality, there is of course the matter of predecessors in the “what if Germany won” vein, but more importantly the atmosphere does not seem substantially different from many conspiracy novels, or spy novels. What do we actually get from the Nazi setting? I think it contributes several tones:
– Fear: we know the Nazis were ruthless, so we know from the beginning that terrible things might happen in the novel
– A reason to care: the Nazis are evil; we hate the Nazis; the protagonist seems to be doing things the Nazis don’t like; ergo we want the protagonist to succede
– Relatedly, moral comfort: the enemy are the Nazis; ergo, anybody who isn’t the Nazis must be right; ergo, we don’t have to care about the protagonist’s own morality, we know he must be the good guy. For a novel where the hero is a fascist policeman, there’s remarkably little moral ambiguity
– An explanation for the convoluted and conspiracy-prone nature of the state
– A powerful pay-off.
To be honest, I think that this is… cheap. Again and again, the Nazis are a shortcut to creating an atmosphere. How do we know the Gestapo are the bad guys? How do we know the Gestapo are a real threat to the life of the hero? Why is this government so riddled with corruption and conspiracy and competing agencies? Because they’re the Nazis, stupid! In particular, the final pay-off seems to me to have a faint taste of sordid holocaust-exploitation: in our conspiracy thriller, we need a big horrific secret to uncover, and the holocaust is lying around with all our horror already secreted onto it, and it’s just so convenient to borrow all that horror to make our book work. As we read the chilling invitation to the Wannsee conference, for instance, much of our horror is not from what is written in the book but from what we already know. Much of it is directed not at the characters in the book (who are, after all, all rather removed from the events of WWII, twenty years before) but at the historical figures we know about. In a way, the book has the manner of hate speech, of well-worn propaganda – shrieking all the dog whistles of why we ought to hate the foul Nazis, and hey, these characters in the book are Nazis, so we should hate them too. Of course, in this particular case we probably should hate them (if we should hate anybody) – and the propaganda here happens to be true. That makes the book morally acceptable – but it doesn’t stop it feeling a little lazy.
Indeed, for a pay-off like the holocaust, Fatherland gets remarkably little out of it. It is signposted so far in advance that its power is substantially weakened by the time we find out about it all – by that point we’re saying “yes, we know, now what’s going to happen to him?”. But we know what’s going to happen to him – we’ve known all along, and though the book must be commended for its courage in not deviating from the obvious conclusion, it can’t gain any awards for unexpected endings. There isn’t even much feeling of the net tightening, as there is nothing gradual about March’s eventual defeat. The only real power in the ending, I find, is in March’s gradual penetration through the layers of evil until he finds the entire state guilty – but though the author tries his best to throw us what appear at first to be ‘good Nazis’ (in particular, Nebe is brilliantly drawn), we still know all along that these are the Nazis. Of course we can’t trust them.
[Personally, on rereading I found that the real climax of the novel occurs relatively early, with the discovery of the Lady with Ermine. This (and the final scene) are what I remembered about the book, not the holocaust. The Leonardo simply contrasts so excellently with Nebe’s officially-approved monstrosities of art that it seems a more total rebuttal of fascism than the cold facts about the death toll. Then again, how much of that came from the fact that I knew and loved the painting already, and how much from his actual description of it? And I can’t shake the idea that that too was a little cheap, an inserted symbolism that had little reason for being there]
So the Nazis don’t supply the book with much that could not be created in any other conspiracy thriller – it’s just easier to do it with the Nazis. But perhaps the illustration of the Nazi society is its own reward? It could be – but it isn’t. There just isn’t enough seen of it. Much of what is seen is not all that convincing – at times the Gestapo seem omnipotent, and at others weak, and it is sometimes hard to see why. The two main protagonists are purposefully excluded from mainstream Nazi society, which not only makes them simplistic morally but also prevents us from seeing more of the world around them. I’d have preferred it if Max Jaeger had been the protagonist! Yes, let’s see what life is like living with the famous Hannelore. Let’s see him be obsequious and toadying and balancing his morals (he’s clearly not a bad man) with his safety. Instead, we have Xavier ‘no compromises’ March, who is so unimpeachably anti-fascist that it’s hard to see why he’s been so devoted to his job, and harder to see why the fascists have put up with him.
Enough complaining. The setting is impressionistic; the characters are mostly bland and simplistic. I think Nebe is probably the only interesting character, in a cast that could have been extracted from a dozen other films and novels of the same kind – and Nebe gets little screentime. These things, however, don’t make it a bad novel. It’s gripping; it’s fun. It’s vivid.
Adrenaline: 4/5. As I’ve suggested, I don’t feel the climax is really pulled off, but it hurtles along at a good pace, with recognisable but well-drawn threats and obstacles to overcome, and a genuinely tense finale. It’s a thriller – if it failed in this department, it really would be a bad book. It doesn’t.
Emotion: 3/5. Not much character development, and by now I’m rather desensitised to the horrors of the holocaust – it takes more that brief recitations to make that really affective. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to care about the holocaust to some degree – and the characters are at least sympathetic, so I cared when things happened to them.
Thought: 2/5. It hints at things, so it isn’t a 1, but it doesn’t really address many of the dilemmas of life in a totalitarian state. Much of the thought it inspired me to was “is that really realistic?”
Beauty: 3/5. Even without depth, it paints its scenes brightly. It tries to rope in symbolism where possible. There’s a certain brutal beauty to the ending. The prose is always solid, sometimes better, and sometimes has genuinely striking images.
Craft: 4/5. It’s hard to fault it too much – it’s a very efficient thriller. The prose, as I say, can’t really be objected to (by and large). Nonetheless, there are flaws. One is that, to reiterate, the pacing of the climax doesn’t feel quite right – there’s a string of peaks that don’t ever seem to reach a single summit. It doesn’t quite pay off. Furthermore, this is a textbook bestseller – and sometimes its a bit too obvious that it’s a textbook. It’s a little too obvious that Jaeger is the ‘just keep your head down’ colleague with a good heart but no courage who tries to keep March from confronting the authorities. That said, the functions of everything may be clear, but they are not ex machina – there are good in-book reasons for everything, as well as formal ones.
Endearingness: 3/5. It’s very easy to read, and the characters are sympathetic. On the other hand, the subject matter is dark, the characters are too thin to really care about, and there’s not enough humour to make it a really fun read.
Originality: 2/5. Cliched bestseller. However, the tragic arc is bold, and while I’m not sure the holocaust-payoff really works it is at least distinctive (compared to the usual ‘shoot the bad guy’ climax). Also some kudos again to the prose – it’s not going to win the Nobel, but it’s above average, with some good images from time to time. Still: cliched bestseller.
Overall: 5/7. Good.