For anyone waiting with bated breath for the further adventures of Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev from William Ryan, the new book may come as a disappointment. However, all is not lost, for at the book signing last night the author distinctly told me that the next Korolev novel was in progress…
Be not afraid though, the new novel The Constant Soldier is as good, I would say even better, than any of the previous three novels. And yes, I say that as one of the unashamed admirers of the Korolev series.
This is a departure, not only from skulduggery in Stalin’s Russia, but also from nearly every novel I have ever read about the closing years of the Second World War. It is about “the camps”, it is about soldiers – German and Russian – as the tide has turned, it is brutal and unflinching and brilliant.
Paul Brandt, a highly decorated but wounded soldier, is returning from the Eastern Front, his fighting days are over; after treatment in a German hospital he is discharged and lacking any other place to go returns to his own village. Much has changed.
His family have farmed here for generations, his uncle Ernst also farms in the same valley. A valley in Upper Silesia that has been successively German, Polish, Czech, Bohemian and Moravian – back and forth since the 9th Century. Now, since Germany invaded Czechoslovakia it is again German, the Polish families have mostly be replaced by Ur-Germans, the Jewish families – well they are not there either. The rolling fields are largely covered by factories, prison camps and a seemingly delightful and incongruous holiday camp, the function of which is somewhat belied by the barbed wire, guard towers and the SS man sitting on a wall.
Paul is met at the station by his father, both of them much altered by the four years apart. On the way to the farm, such conversations that they have are sporadic but full of meaning: the Glinztmanns have moved away; Pavel Lensky now works on his father’s farm; Pavel’s brother Hubert has disappeared but Paul’s sister Monika, who was engaged to be married to Hubert is still at home.
Brandt ponders these things, worries at them and thinks. Then passing the ‘rest’ hut, he sees someone he knew in a different place and at a different time and so begins this fascinating study of loyalty, guilt, love, fear, danger…
This is as thrilling and intense as anything I have read before, it paints a different picture of the camps, no less horrifying because it is set on one of the many ‘resting’ camps for those Germans on the front line of the horror, not of the battlegrounds but the extermination or labour camps that were all over Germany and its conquered territories.
We should all know the names of the infamous ones, but how many people knew that there were literally thousands of camps, the evidence rapidly and comprehensively destroyed by their Commandants as the Russians advanced, with the inmates being marched further and further west, to fill camps at a greater distance from the advancing front line – not all these were extermination camps like Auschwitz, though even that had a nearby ‘rest’ camp.
Many were simply labour camps for mining, ammunition factories, armament factories and they had to be manned by someone, not Germans because they were needed to fight for the Fatherland; so these were the untermensch: Jews, Roma and Slavs (ethnic Poles, Serbs and later Russians) all of whom could be worked to death without fear; underfed, maltreated and shot on sight if they fell over from exhaustion and they could no longer work, what did it matter there were plenty more.
The Russians are now coming back, and Brandt and a few other people know full well what this promises for them and their people.
The genesis for this book, which William admitted was very difficult to write, was a packet of innocuous looking photographs which were purchased in 2005 by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Unless you look at them searchingly, they might appear to be holiday snaps, men and women together playful and happy. But closer inspection shows that these uniforms are those of the most notorious of the German hierarchy, the SS. It is clear too, that these are identifiably camp guards – in fact one is Karl Höcker, adjutant to the last Commandant of Auschwitz, Richard Baer.
Some of the scenes shown in the photographs are replicated in this book, indeed two of the actual photographs are reproduced in the Author’s Note and others have been reproduced in review pages in various newspapers, but The Constant Soldier is a work of fiction, the historical background is based in fact, but the village in the valley and the people in the novel are all characters created from the agile and fertile mind of the author.
You may wonder how, if I only got the book yesterday, I have already read it – but I consume books the way many people consume chocolates – a box at a time. I, however, retain the memory of plot and character for many years. I sat down as soon as I got home and started to read…