Category Archives: Modern History

Resistance

If you are wedded to cookery programmes, then the phrase “three ways” may be a death knell to this post. This is three books which show three ways, and in two instances people, who outwitted the Nazi Reich.

The Cut-Out Girl, worthy winner of the Costa Prize 2019, is the extraordinary story of a young Jewish girl who survived in Amsterdam, hiding in plain sight, from the German Occupiers and how after the end of the war, she was lost, and nearly forgotten, by the family who saved her.

Her remarkable survival and this book is the result of a search by the grandson of the foster family, who looked for her, found her and reconnected the broken threads.

This is neither a comfortable, nor a totally neutral story. Lien was not treated very well by her new family, and one incident alone is enough to explain why she might never have wanted to see them again; but that is not the reason for the severed relationship – that came from within the family.

This is a story of persistence, misunderstandings, courage and love and Bart van Es has written hauntingly about this strange, life changing event for his grandparents, his own father and Lien de Jong-Spiero herself.

The second book is rather different. This is a novel for a start, but it is based on the true story of one of Italy’s heroic youths. Guiseppe Lella, Pino for short, is about fifteen at the outbreak of the Second World War. He lives with his parents, a younger brother and a sister, in Milan. Other members of his family live there also and they are principally engaged in the making and designing of leather travel bags, handbags and purses.

At the beginning of the book, Pino is concerned with girls, jazz and the cinema. But the bombing of Milan changes his life and the life of the whole family. He and his brother are sent into the mountains to an Alpine school run by a priest, Father Re. Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the strange, searing and ambivalent story of a youth who encounters first hand the terrible evil that is Fascism, and subsequently the evils of Nazism.

While in the mountains, he is secretly trained to guide Jewish families and escaping pilots who have landed in Italy across the Alps into Switzerland. This is not without danger, not least from the elements. But also, obviously from German patrols, and also Italian brigands who latch on to the advantages of the situation to bully money and food, in the name of the Partisans (though not for them in fact), from the local population.

But just before he turns eighteen, Pino is summoned back to Milan by his parents and forced to enrol in the German army. This is because young Italian men that are drafted into the army are sent immediately to the Russian front, if they “volunteer” they are enrolled in less combative branches of the force, and stay behind enemy lines. That is the theory, anyway.

Reluctant, but obedient, Pino joins up. But is then slightly injured in a bombing raid and ends up, by a curious accident of fate, as the driver to a German officer, Hans Leyer, one of the shadow men and one of the most powerful Germans in Italy towards the end of the war.

Pino’s story is extraordinary and baffling, and it is not until many years after the war that it comes to light. Mark Sullivan was at an exceedingly low ebb when at a dinner party in Montana, USA he heard a modest and sketchy outline of the tale. He followed this up with visits to Italy to meet Pino, now a man in his mid to late eighties and the novel is based on his several prolonged visits and interviews with Pino.

Pino Lella had never spoken at length to anyone about the course of his war, what he did and who he did it with and until Sullivan turned up, that is probably how it would have remained, unmentioned until he died with his memories untold.

The third book is by the late Paddy Ashdown and tells the story of a group of people who did everything, except the one thing that might have made a difference, to stop Adolf Hitler and his rise to power and the inevitable consequence of the German rush to war.

Nein, Standing Up to Hitler 1935 – 1944 is the history of a massive failure. Had any of the schemes that are outlined in this well researched book come to fruition then the history of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century might have been very different.

A failure to cooperate, a failure of nerve and several missed opportunities meant that Hitler rose inexorably to power, and just as inexorably took German into war.

All three of these books are a revelation. Each showing what a slender gap there is between what happened and what might have happened. They are all incredibly lively, exciting and devastating in the ways humans deal with danger. It shows too, how depraved and ugly humans can be and how unfeeling.

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Chiller thriller

Another series, another country, another time. Luke McCallin‘s debut novels about the activities of Gregor Reinhardt are gripping. Not simply because they are suspenseful, entirely believable and tortuously convoluted but for the background.

We find ourselves, with Gregor in Sarajevo towards the end of the second world war. The city is surrounded by The Partisans who hold territory to the East, from where also the Russians will be coming. To the west there are other dangers and into this dangerous situation there is suddenly a gruesome murder.

There are two victims, a Serbo Croat woman and a German officer. Gregor Reinhardt is called in, but there are those that wish him to fail. However, in a past life, Reinhardt has been both a veteran of battle and a policeman. His current role is as a member of the armed forces, but his commanding officer has asked him to set aside those duties and to investigate this crime.

The first novel, The Man from Berlin, is a fascinating investigation which brings up several vexed issues pertaining to the status of an admired General. It gradually dawns on Reinhardt, after at least one colleague suffers a fatal accident, that this is going to be difficult. Not least because he, himself, has a growing repugnance for activities which he suspects are part and parcel of army policy. Not necessarily his unit, but his compatriots.

Quite aside from the vivid descriptions of Sarajevo and its surrounding countryside, there is the added interest of the historical background to the current situation of the novel. There are so many tribal groups, each with its own agenda and thanks to the detailed and informative outlines, this brings very much into focus the much more recent Balkan debacle.

Even someone with the most sketchy knowledge probably knows that after World War II, a Communist state under Tito was created as Yugoslavia, but that this fragmented after the death of Tito and the fall of the USSR. This novel gives the reader the added historic context for the Balkan crisis of the 21st Century.

In the second novel, The Pale House, the war is over but Reinhardt is back in Sarajevo trying to solve the displaced persons crisis. But the strange disappearance of German soldiers from the penal battalions and the discovery of a massacre in the forest, leads Reinhardt again into dangerous territory, where his investigation seems destined to aggravate several important people.

In the last available volume, The Ashes of Berlin, Reinhardt is in a fairly lowly position in the Berlin police force, in the Occupied Zone, where not only competing factions, but competing nations are endeavouring to control the destroyed city, to help survivors and to find any recalcitrant Nazis. And, on cue, there begins a spate of gruesome and curious murders…step forward Gregor Reinhardt…

There is still another volume to look out for. And in all of them, there is a wealth of historical detail which cannot help but expand one’s limited knowledge of the period. What is so crucially fascinating is the way in which Luke McCallin has got into the mind and character of a German. One is so unused to seeing the war and its aftermath from that point of view, even if in this case it is fiction.

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High Society murders

Actually, I am not sure how respectable it is to write crime genre fiction set in a real house among real people, all of whom are now dead, though other relatives still live today.

That said the Mitford novels of Jessica Fellowes are a rattlingly good yarn, suitable for beach or flight. Engaging, amusing and light. These are definitely more Agatha Christie than Scandi Noir.

Louisa Cannon gets a job as a nursey assistant at Astall Manor, she comes from a very difficult and poor background but is luckily helped into this post by having friends in high places.

In the first of these novels we get to see more of Louisa’s background and also how and where she met the policeman Guy Sullivan, who having ‘rescued’ her once ends up being involved in the two murders that are encompassed in these two books.

Jessica Fellowes is probably better known to readers of her compendium books about Downton Abbey, and these murder novels are set in the same period, the same milieu and among the same set, only this time the ‘set’ is the real family home of the Redesdale family and the famous Mitford sisters. In the 1920s, they were all still unmarried and living at home with Farve and Muv, Lord and Lady Redesdale; the sisters being Diana, Nancy, Pamela, Katherine, Unity and Deborah.

In the first of these books, Lady Mitford is pregnant with Deborah, one day in the distant future to become Duchess of Devonshire; Pamela and Nancy are reaching their teens, and are about to be launched on Society.

The real life Pamela is the least notorious of the sisters, she married a scientist, war hero, millionaire called Derek Jackson; Nancy is the novelist who famously mined her own family in her novels The Pursuit of Love and  Love in a Cold Climate (both very similar in tone to the Fellowes books without the bloodshed).

In these two novels, the other sisters feature as faces in the nursery and do not have much of a role in the stories that unfold, so far. The same goes for Tom, the only son who is away at Eton and was (in real life) killed in action during the Second World War while serving in Burma. Though I am fairly sure that Louisa Cannon and Guy Sullivan will make a team that solves another murder at some point. Whether they will centre around the same family remains to be guessed at.

 

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London Film Festival 2018/6

A marathon three film day, meaning atrocious diet of coffee and Maltesers, plus a hurried sandwich, but I would not have missed any one of them.

First up was a fictionalized account of a South Korean spy working in North Korea. This was one of the only South Asia films in this year’s list, most of them have been hived off into a separate film festival of their own, which follows hard upon this annual London Film Festival, by which time I am filmed-out for a while. Pity, as those are the films I used to choose most.

The Spy

This was a brilliant start to the day. Although my knowledge of South Korean politics was limited, so that possibly some nuanced chicanery passed over my head, this was a spy drama of immense tension and interest. It will certainly lead me to do a bit of post-film research since the story, largely true though fictionalized, was of immediate interest in view of the current situation on that peninsula, right now.

But even without the relevance of today’s situation this was a marvellous look at the inscrutable East, being at its most opaque. Who was on to the bigger picture and who was not? Which of them was on the side of honour and which was the snake in the grass?

Brilliant acting, vibrant and astonishing glimpses of Korean politique and possibly even pictures of North Korea – though since the credits were not translated at all, it is impossible to know where exactly the film had been made.

The second film I am also glad to have seen, although it was a filler for a film I wanted to see but could not get tickets – a situation I might address later.

Putin's witnesses

This rather intimate picture of the Russian leader, is of Putin visiting his old school teacher in St Petersburg. She had twice been primed for this visit, the first time when Putin was meeting the British Prime Minister – Tony Blair, on that occasion for some inexplicable reason he failed to turn up, though his security turned up in advance anyway. The second occasion Putin was there for a funeral of his political mentor, not Yeltsin but someone else.

A great deal of this film was made before the country really knew who Putin was, and before Yeltsin’s sudden announcement on 31st December 1999 that he was retiring. Putin took over as Acting President from that moment, though the elections, at which he got 52% of the vote, were some months later.

He arrives with flowers and kisses. The genesis of this visit comes from an idea presented by the film’s director – Vitaly Mansky. Mansky is a well know and highly respected Russian documentary maker and he and his team got intimate and extraordinary access to both Yeltsin and Putin, especially before Putin actually became the Russian leader.

This was a thought provoking film, not least because in spite of being close to Putin, being invited several times for quite intensive interviews while Putin explained himself, Vitaly Mansky and his family now live abroad and not in Russia. At the Q&A Mansky made it clear that his exile was voluntary, but during the film, his commentary also made it quite clear that opposing the present leader can lead to significant difficulties and sudden death.

Manksy’s decision to leave with his family came after the Ukraine debacle.

Finally, a touching and tragic film about a family split by religion and ideology. Sami, the son of the title is seen suffering from acute migraines, for which there seems no obvious cause. But we know that all is not quite as it seems.

Dear Son

The father-son relationship is tender but complicated. Sami is clearly lying to his parents, who think he is studying for his baccalaureate. When he vanishes, Riadh finds that he is beginning to lie to Nazli. This is a family torn apart in a devastating and emotional roller coaster. The acting is superb, both parents show deep and convincing tenderness for their son, who acts like many another moody teenager – but with tragic consequences.

 

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a whole pile of books

I have been reading a lot since the bad weather started and three books were literally un-put-downable, such that I was still reading at 3AM. Which is fine, but I realise rather indulgent.

The Collector

So for the serious one first. The Collector is a translated recollection (in a very real sense) of the life and collections of a Russian family called Shchukin, but particularly Sergei Shchukin, by Natalya Semenova and André Delocque, translated by Antony Roberts.

The Shchukin family were immensely wealthy Russians, they had a near monopoly on fabric manufacture, and interior fabric items such as curtains, bed linen and bed covers and other designer accoutrements of the bourgeoisie.

There were several brothers who collected: Petr whose interest was mainly in Russian artefacts of all sorts, a John Soane of Russia you could say; Ivan, who collected paintings and Sergei who collected specifically French Impressionists.

André Delocque is Sergei’s grandson and helped with the material and research. Sergei was a man of extraordinary vision, buying paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Whistler, Puvis de Chavannes, Cottet, and a great many more. Sergei went regularly to Paris and met most of these painters, particularly Matisse and Picasso, whose pictures he bought long before either of them were famous.

Even before the Revolution in Russia, this outstanding collection was willed to the people of Russia together with the impressive Trubetskoy Palace, Moscow, for which many of the paintings by Matisse were commissioned and in which they were housed.

This I followed with a wonderful new historical novel by Victoria Glendinning about a group of nuns in Shaftesbury Abbey in 1535, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Abbess was confident that such an Abbey would not be targeted, she was Dame Elizabeth Zouche and had influence in high places. How wrong can one be?

The main character, Agnes Peppin, has been sent to the Abbey by her parents because she fell pregnant. Obviously, unmarried and now spoiled, her only recourse was to take holy vows. Actually, this never was fulfilled as the Abbey was destroyed, stone by stone before her novitiate was completed.

So she was out in the world again. But her life, and her observations, since this is a first person narrative, give us a very complete insight into the gentle, and not so gentle life of a community, followed by its exceedingly painful exodus. More painful for the elderly nuns and for the Abbess herself.

Glandinning

It is both a gripping look at the times and an affecting story of the strong and the weak, and the powerless. Agnes lives to see Thomas Cromwell executed, Henry VIII dead and her own lover, Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet) imprisoned and executed.

This reminded me very strongly of HMF Prescott’s A Man on a Donkey, but The Butcher’s Daughter is much more concentrated than this older novel, though the earlier book remains one of my favorite historical novels of all time.

The other three by Simon Mawer, AN Wilson and Louis de Bernières were all of a completely different sort. And these were the ones that I read through at one sitting each.

So Much Life Left Over has characters that appeared in a previous novel, The Dust That Falls from Dreams; though cleverly it is a stand-alone novel and not having read the previous book would not detract in any way from this emotionally taxing story. In fact, my tears streamed through the first three chapters and then the last three, but that says more about me than maybe anything about the book.

Rosie and Daniel have moved to Ceylon with their daughter Esther to start a new life after the horrors of World War I, in which Rosie had been a VAD and Daniel a fighter pilot. Daniel loves everything about the life they lead there, but Rosie finds herself increasingly bored and dissatisfied, a personal loss which has affected them both drives a wedge between them, and eventually Rosie insists that they return to England.

This is a love story as much as anything, but also has humour and beauty; the characters of Rosie’s family in particular are uniquely individual and unusual; her mad mother and strangely peripatetic, golf-loving father; her sisters and their wonderful partners and then Daniel and his friends. It is all captivating and brutally sad, as the end comes as World War II starts in all its forbidding darkness.

Prague Spring has one of those giveaway titles that tells you where you are and when. Two rather feckless university students decide to hitch-hike around Europe together in the long vac of 1968; but lacking a definite destination and due to a lot of arguing and finally, decisions made at the toss of a coin, they end up in Dubček’s Prague.

Having got through the Czechoslovakian border, they are trudging along the road hoping for a lift, when the diplomatic car of the First Secretary to the British Embassy draws up. Simon Wareham, with his girlfriend Lenka, have returned from a visit to Munich and thus accommodated they all arrive in Prague.

Lenka is living, unofficially, with Simon in his embassy flat so Ellie and James go to live in her apartment. And so there they all are, with the nemesis of the Czechoslovakian dream hovering on the borders…

Aftershocks was a very strange novel for me to read.  In a preface, AN Wilson writes very firmly that this is not a book about the earthquakes in New Zealand. Now, I have been to Christchurch both before and after the earthquakes, and so although this novel is set in an imaginary island in the Pacific, I could not but read it as if, in spite of what Mr Wilson said, it was about New Zealand.

His discretion lies in the knowledge that he was only a visitor to Christchurch, that therefore he could not possibly know what is was  like to live through such a traumatic experience – but at the same time, he fills the novel to the brim with what amounts to an hour by hour description of those events.

All that said, the novel is seen with a perceptive and kindly eye upon a number of characters who for one reason or another will turn out to be closely related. It has a first person narrative of a slightly different complexion, since much of the time this “voice” is more that of the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, rather than the straightforward narrator.

To the extent that I accept his disavowal with a pinch of salt, this novel touched me deeply and was read in a single day. It is a beautiful story, not least because it captures something of the distance that there is, emotionally, between families that are left behind in England when, say, a beloved daughter takes up a job, in this case Dean of Aberdeen Cathedral in the far-off Pacific Island.

 

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A Book for Giving

It is not Christmas yet, but you might get copies of Sea Prayer ready for anyone with a heart. It is a short book, the best prayers are. It is not too expensive at about £13. It is exquisitely beautiful and painfully relevant.A Sea Prayer

Khaled Hosseini shot to fame with his first novel The Kite Runner, about a young boy who let his friend down in a crisis, and never really recovered. Hosseini’s later books also dealt with loss, family crisis, pragmatic choices and all of them dealt with emotional pain.

Inspired by the images of Alan Kurdi, a three-year old, whose little body was found on an Italian beach, this book sends up a prayer to the indifferent sea, for Marwan. His father stands on the edge of a moonlit sea, praying for a safe passage to a better life.

The sadness, as the father recalls his home, is palpable. He wishes that his little son was older, would remember the beautiful things about his homeland, rather than the mortal difference between dark blood and bright red blood; that he would remember the olive and fig trees and his grandmother’s cooking rather than the dark cellars with too little to eat or drink; that he could remember the sound of bleating goats rather than the scream of dropping bombs; but above all the father’s prayer is:

Pray God steers the vessel true,

when the shores slip out of eyeshot

and we are a flyspeck

in the heaving waters, pitching and tilting.

easily swallowed.

Because you,

you are precious cargo, Marwan,

the most precious there ever was.

I pray the sea knows this.

Inshallah.

You can only just see it on the far left of this part of the double-spread illustration, but there is a tiny overloaded speck of a boat, on the surface of this wild, swaying, indifferent sea.

sea prayer illus

The exquisite watercolour illustrations by Dan Williams, move from glorious, painterly, golden hues of vibrant wild flowers, olive trees and busy markets through a dread-filled palette of greys, browns and blacks into this sweeping, moonlit, green sea.

Nothing could be more impactful.

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Souvenir de temps perdu

Two very different novels, both revisiting France in World War II.

Manda ScottA Treachery of Spies is a thriller, as well as a police procedural that starts in March 2018 with a ritualized killing. Manda Scott has revived her detective Captain Picaut, last seen in an extreme trauma unit having suffered burns to the right hand side of her body. [Into the Fire]

Picaut has reported back fit for duty just as a new crime scene emerges in an Orléans car park. In a stolen, or borrowed, Citroën BX there is a hideously mutilated, but still obviously beautiful, elderly woman of about ninety five; killed by three shots, one to the head and two to the chest, and with her tongue cut out.

She has identification papers, elegant (but not French) clothes and apart from the grotesque manner of her death, there seems to be no reason why she is where she is, or indeed who attacked her.

The thriller switches between present day Orléans and the search for answers to this and other killings and 1940-44 in Occupied France and the activities of the Résistance and SOE As one might expect from this talented writer the plots, double crossings, red herrings and altered identities are numerous. The team on the ground in 2018 have to follow leads that reach right back to a period in France even before some of them were born.

The chapter headings make it quite clear which period we are in, but the many different identities that were taken up by members of the Résistance and SOE makes it important to keep a firm grasp of who everyone is, at which point in time – for all is not what it seems.

Captain Picaut is struggling to see the direction that this investigation is taking, and one of the hazards lies in the very people who seemed to be helping.

The second novel by Sebastian Faulks is in familiar territory for him, though a very different and blistering novel, quite unlike Birdsong and Charlotte Grey.

FaulksTwo characters descend on modern day Paris. Tariq from Morocco, in pursuit of his mother’s family, and Hannah, an American, who is doing some post doctoral research into the lives of women in Paris during the Occupation.

We meet Tariq first, just at the point at which he makes the decision to go to Paris, he has no money and therefore goes under the radar; his first encounter once in France is with Sandrine and together they hitch-hike to Paris, and find somewhere fairly insalubrious to doss down.

Next we meet Hannah, just arrived and with an address to find, a small flat which she is renting for a few months. She later finds Sandrine, weakened and feverish, who she takes in temporarily out of sheer kindness.

Once Sandrine is better, she goes back to where she thinks Tariq is, finds him and brings him back to Hannah’s flat. Thus far, so simple.

But Paris Echo is about re-membering (literally putting flesh upon ghosts). Hannah uses the audio recordings of women who lived in Paris during the Occupation, two in particular –  Mathilde Masson and Juliette Lemaire. Juliette died in 2001, so the record says but it appears that Mathilde might still be alive, though now about eighty five. Hannah listens to their accounts of what life was like for them and goes for a revealing interview with the old lady.

Meanwhile, Tariq keeps looking at women, and for people who might be able to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of his mother’s family. He does discover something, from a man who claims he is Victor Hugo, though it is not quite what he was expecting.

With two first-person narrators, it can sometimes takes a few words to work out who is speaking, but it quickly becomes apparent, for both Tariq and Hannah have very different pursuits and voices.

There are many and wonderful characters in this novel: friends (or ghosts) that Tariq makes and follows; lines of enquiry that Hannah follows and her friends in Paris and beyond. This is also a poignant love story, a journey of self-knowledge and an exploration of a period in France which was temporarily buried in shame and is slowly rising again to the surface.

There is one character, though, who is not fiction. One of the best and bravest SOE women of the betrayed Prosper circuit, Andrée Borrel. Caught, tortured and executed in the only concentration camp in France, the terrible and notorious Natzweiler-Struthof. Hannah takes the train from Gare de l’Est to Strasbourg, very probably the very train that took Andrée and her three companions, to the camp. There she has a very out-of-body experience and from which she returns, changed and aware of something she has missed.

It is also, in passing, a salute to the Paris Metro, very decidedly one of the more interesting characters in this sublime novel.

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