I got this book through a promotion and didn’t really think I was going to like it. The first couple of chapters were OK, but I thought the writing and characters were a little wooden. As I read though, it became more clear what an ambitious undertaking the book is and the writing grew on me so that I liked it much better as I went along.
Captain Bach, a Berlin police officer, is sent to a Jewish death camp to investigate a murder and discovers an uprising among the inmates. According to a post note by the author this type of uprising actually occurred, although it’s difficult to imagine given the treatment of the people in the camp.
As you might expect from any book about the holocaust parts of it are extremely difficult to read. The author is graphic about conditions in the camp and there are parts that I wanted to skip because they are hard to take. In my opinion though, this isn’t what really sets the book apart. What is different about it is the author’s attempt to deal with the moral ambiguity on both sides of the fence, Nazis and Jewish prisoners. In that sense it is like the movie Downfall, which in turn is based on the book Inside Hitler’s Bunker, which I haven’t read, but which describes the last ten days of Hitler’s life.
What The Angel of Zin and Downfall recognize is that the truly frightening thing isn’t that the Nazis were monsters. It’s rather that they were people. There were certainly more than a few psychopaths mixed in, but on the whole they were people who went along for a number of reasons, for example for the power it gave them or because they were afraid not to. In one great part of the book, the camp commander commends his men because it’s easy to be on the Russian front and fight other armed men. What is hard is to do what they are doing in the death camp without losing their sense of decency. (I may have the actual phrase wrong but you get the idea.) When you come to grips with the fact that many people must have felt that way it is an almost breathtaking thing to read. Captain Bach, the hero, isn’t an idealistic, mankind loving ideal. He’s mildly anti-Semitic and his beloved ex-wife and two teenage children are Nazi believers. He just can’t come to grips with what he sees in the camp, which seems plausible to me.
The author also deals with this on the part of the Jewish prisoners. They know the camp’s secret but still fool newcomers into the showers and take their valuables. Like the Nazis they do this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the basic decision they all need to make between killing or dying. One of the most interesting characters is the Rabbi, who struggles to adhere to Talmudic values in the face of what his people are living through.
The message was summed up by Pogo. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I’ve never read anything by Clifford Irving before, but I will certainly read more.
Erich Remarque writes about good people in terrible times. Unfortunately, Europe between the World Wars provided him with plenty of material. Everyone has heard about All Quiet on the Western Front, which is about young men on the front lines of World War I. If you haven’t read it you certainly should. I’ve also read Three Comrades and The Road Back, which are about soldiers trying to readjust in Germany after the war. The Night in Lisbon takes place a few years later, when the Nazis are running Germany but before they’ve invaded France.
The reader never even finds out the real name of the main characters, which is appropriate because they are refugees and as such don’t have names the way the rest of us take for granted. Schwarz is the name in a passport inherited from a dying refugee. He meets a stranger, another refugee, and tells him he can have Schwarz’s two passages on a ship for the United States if he will sit with Schwarz all night. During that night Schwarz tells the stranger his story. Schwarz is afraid it will become distorted in his mind because it is so important to him. He believes that only by telling someone with some distance the story, and Schwarz’s wife Helen, will live.
We know from the beginning that Helen is dead, and somehow Remarque is still able to make her story viscerally real and incredibly sad. Their story is about Nazi brutality, but at a very personal level. It also brings out the stupidity that accompanies brutality more effectively than most works do. The Nazis have the reputation of incredible efficiency, which is to some extent earned, but I don’t think as much as they get credit for. Brutality is more often accompanied by stupidity than higher level thinking. And if you arrest enough people randomly it can look like efficiency if you actually find a few people plotting against you. Not to mention that if you make the law vague enough, there will be plenty of people breaking it. A lesson for modern times.
The Night in Lisbon is also about marriage and what is and isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. Schwarz and Helen had a very mediocre relationship and marriage before the war. The war and circumstances of Helen’s death give it a depth and meaning that it never would have achieved in normal times. Is this a happy ending? No, but they managed to get something positive out of life in desperate times.
At the end, we find out what happens to everyone, kind of. No one lives happier ever after as far as we know. I won’t tell you any more than that, but do suggest you read and find out for yourself. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Just don’t expect to be whistling when you finish it.
These Cal Innes stories are fun to read and I’m going to keep going with the series. The hero, Cal Innes, is a semi-tough ex-con from England. Cal is relatively well-intentioned but doesn’t have much sense. In fact sometimes you want to scream at him for being so stupid, but he seems to go at it consistently so you can’t say it isn’t realistic unless you don’t know any well-intentioned, stupid people. I know a few.
Cal also seems to be made out of concrete. If I got beaten to a pulp half as much as he does I’d give it up. Every now and then he comes out on top in a physical confrontation, but unfortunately for Cal those times are few and far between.
Sucker Punch is number two in the series and for once I’ve read them in order. I recommend you do the same because some people are introduced in Saturday’s Child, number one in the series. Sucker Punch also refers to things that happen there that you won’t get if you don’t read the first book. Sucker Punch is the same type of book as Saturday’s Child. Cal and his friend Paulo run afoul of Mo, a local thug who’s very unlikeable. Paulo sends Cal out to California with Liam, a promising young boxer, to watch out for him. Most of the time Paulo seems well grounded but couldn’t have been thinking straight when he did that. I won’t tell you what ensues in California, but suffice it to say Cal doesn’t do much to improve our opinion of his intelligence.
The main thing about these books is that they are fun to read. I originally fell into Ray Banks because I read something Johnny Shaw wrote about how much he likes his writing and I really liked Dove Season and Plaster City. If you’re looking for deep meaning this probably isn’t the place to find it. But if you’re looking for some stories to load onto your Kindle for a week at the beach you can spend more money and do a lot worse.