Monday, October 31, 2011

A German Requiem by Philip Kerr

Named for the poem written by James Fenton about Germany after the Nazi era, this novel is the third in Philip Kerr’s ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy. Bernie Gunther is the antihero, the ex-policeman who as part of the German police force worked for the SS but asked to become a soldier to avoid being involved in the crimes of the Third Reich. He was eventually captured by the Russians and sent to work in the mines. A year later, he was to be sent back to Germany, but was resourceful enough to jump the train and avoid the pitfalls of repatriation, especially as it was being carried out by the Russians.

The Fenton poem is cryptic and skirts its subject, glancing off and on what was done and what transpired. The poem’s structure seems to mimic our inability to absorb and to process such barbarities. As in Heidelberg, when I visited there: coming down a hill, seeing a small amphitheater sitting there on the grass, all deserted, with no identification, no plaque… “That was where they held the rallies”, my sister said, with all solemnity. Philip Kerr duly mentions throughout the book the horror of the world regarding Nazi atrocities. However, his main focus is to show how life went on in postwar Germany, with new players mingling with the old.

The time is 1947, and Gunther travels to Vienna to investigate a murder of an American officer by a German policeman, one with ties to the underworld. What you find with Kerr is that the “underworld” is almost everywhere. Whether it’s his wife Kristen carrying on in Berlin with an American officer for the material goods he can get for her, or the Allies deciding to work with ex-Nazis to go after the Communists, almost everyone has an agenda – to look after themselves. Gunther finds out the truth about everyone, so there isn’t much to say about anybody, unless it’s the poor girl with a lover who was silenced so that she gets killed almost as an afterthought.

Kerr knows his history, and the reader can be grateful by the end that at least somebody understands who was doing what and for whom. Kerr is clever enough to have some big spoils hinted at to keep us reading – no less than Hermann Goering, who Kerr suggests was never brought to justice, but is alive and well under a new identity, working with the Americans. This twist is just to help nail in the relentless view that Kerr wants us to acquiesce in…that villains may fall, but only new ones take their place.

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