Tag Archives: World War Two

Summer Reading: (3) The Man In The High Castle

No doubt you’ve had the experience of reading a highly-rated book that just didn’t work for you. That happened to me many years back when Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle ended up in my eager hands.   I read this  brilliant novel of alternate history and drew a blank. Prepared for a bizarre thriller, I was mystified by the odd intricacy of what I was reading. Yet I sensed that the problem lay in my own view of how a novel should unfold — plotting, characters, climax and resolution — rather than with the author’s elusive and complex reflections on the truth. So a few months ago, in an act of ritual renewal, I purchased an unneeded brand-new copy of the novel and set out to read it once again.

High Castle is stunning, one of those rare books that still has the power to shock us. Published fifty years ago, it describes a world in which Japan and Germany are the victors in the Second World War. The U.S. has been divided into the Pacific States of America (ruled by the more civilized Japanese) while the East Coast is dominated by Nazi Germany (“All we get in New York is heavy German bombastic Wagner…” says one character, apparently nostalgic for a good Broadway musical). Slavery has returned to the South, Germany dominates outer space, Africa no longer exists (“that huge empty ruin”) and a cold war pits the victors, Germany and Japan, against each other. Fears and horrors long put to rest will stalk your psyche once again as you read (reminding me of the prophesy of the rats’ return at the end of Albert Camus’ The Plague). Yet life has adjusted to the status quo, and what we see is the bland, workaday routine of West Coast society — enough like our own to disturb us.

The book’s title refers to a man named Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of a popular underground novel (The Grasshopper Lies Heavy) which provides a disorienting story-within-a-story — an alternate history in which the Allies win the war through a series of events that is not quite true to historical fact (all facts being rather slippery in this fictional context). This inner story belongs to the multiple-mirrors complexity that structures this book, a disturbing confusion of realities and falsehoods. The book abounds with deceptions; the antique dealer Robert Childan understands that much of what he sells to his Japanese overlords (hungry for “American culture”) is counterfeit; secret agents with false personae inhabit the story, including Frank Frink, a Jewish man disguised as a Gentile and fearing deportation and death; a judo instructor, Juliana, who becomes sexually involved with Joe, an alleged Italian war vet who’s in fact a Swiss assassin out to kill the novelist Abendsen; the latter, for his own safety, creating the deception that he lives in a fortified dwelling. Picking apart the strands of truth and falsehood is a provocative challenge for the reader.

Apart from the author’s intellectual acumen, it’s wonderful to read work written with such technical skill. Dick moves in and out of the minds of his characters with voices that range from sarcastic (“Work the sentences, if you wish, so that they will mean something,” says Mr. Tagomi to his secretary. “Or so that they mean nothing. Whichever you prefer.”) to English renditions of beginner’s Japanese  (“I hear it on many lips,” says Childan to his Japanese host regarding the underground novel, “but pressure of business prevents my own attention.”)  A delicious element of satire is never far from the surface (try not to laugh — however ruefully — at the fawning responses to the selection of a new German dictator).

Yet Dick’s alternate history functions as a kind of twisted metaphor. It is of course, untrue that the Axis powers won the Second World War, yet in fictional terms, the alternate history within the novel which describes an Allied victory is no less untrue. Truth — whatever it may be — may depend on which side of the looking-glass we stand. In a world of illusion, Dick does not allow us crisp, tight-knit conclusions. As a younger reader, I think I must have found this distressing.

High Castle is a novel of ideas with a fascinating story as the pages turn. Yet one read — or re-read — won’t do it. The book is packed with nuance and insight. If you’ve read it already, go back and read it again. And again.


Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle won the Hugo Award in 1963. This edition was published in New York by Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in 2011.

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What Is It About Wojtek?

For about a year now I’ve been one of thousands of online folks captivated by the story of a mythic and very real brown bear. I keep wondering why I find the story of Wojtek so compelling, even if the reasons seem obvious. If you follow this blog, you may remember last year’s review of Aileen Orr’s delightful book, Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero. But if you haven’t yet met this brave bruin of World War Two fame, check out his books, websites, Facebook pages, a multilingual online comic from Poland and an excellent BBC documentary, “Wojtek: The Bear That Went to War,” now available on DVD.

The documenting of this long-gone critter fascinates me and many others. Hope in a dreary world, that’s Wojtek.

From all accounts, Wojtek seemed to think he was a man, like his army buddies. Maybe he’s just us without the bad stuff.

Wojtek was innocent. He went to war and spread joy and happiness. Orphaned in 1942, he romped and played in the Middle East, didn’t kill anyone (even the spy he trapped in the shower), lugged artillery shells in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy (but didn’t get PTSD), kept up his ursine taste for sweets, chugged beer, ate lit cigarettes and suffered no lifestyle illnesses.  In all of this, he brought out the best in troubled humankind, especially in his Polish comrades, freed from Siberia and based in Iran, exiled from home and family, who were kindhearted enough to love and care for a foundling cub. They enlisted him in the army as their mascot, rewarding him for his voluntary bravery by emblazoning his image (clutching an artillery shell) on their company’s insignia.

It’s hard not to love that big bear Wojtek. He speaks to the heart.

So I dare you to to resist this story. Check those Facebook pages, and you’ll see schoolkids learning about a 200-kilo bear who lumbered through countries that could use a few laughs — Iran, Palestine and Egypt. More good news: Wojtek’s loved in Poland and Scotland, and hailed by the Italian newspaper La Stampa as “l’orso che libero l’Italia” (the bear who liberated Italy). There are war vets alive who still remember him, stacks of wonderful photos online, memorials created and planned, and even a song from Scotland (available on YouTube), where Wojtek “retired” to the Edinburgh Zoo, to die in 1963.

Now a new generation is learning his story, along with the forgotten and distinguished history of the Polish armed forces who befriended Wojtek. Best of all, 2012 marks the late soldier-bear’s seventieth birthday. Spread the word and celebrate! Raise a glass to Wojtek, to his loyalty, bravery and innocence, and to these small gifts that touch our hearts in such mysterious ways.


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Helen Humphreys’ Coventry

When I come across a novel with horrific subject matter, I check out the novelist; is he or she also a poet?  Warranted or not, that linkage is a source of worry.  Much as I love the poetic sensibility in fiction, the capacity of language to aestheticize violence can be irritating. Novels are driven by good characters, but set against an historical backdrop, it becomes too easy to sentimentalize human fate, misusing metaphor’s power to connect all things as a way of conferring “redemptive meaning” on the carnage that characters experience or witness (Too bad about the war, but it made for a helluva novel).

I’ve always enjoyed Helen Humphreys’ delicate prose, but I approached her novel Coventry with these caveats in mind. So it’s reassuring to know that in this case, the reader’s in good hands with a poet and a novelist whose use of language is never clouded by sentiment. Humphreys writes with honesty and care about one of the twentieth century’s many grievous crimes — the German destruction of the British industrial city of Coventry during the Second World War, killing over five hundred people and burning its 14th-century Gothic cathedral to the ground.

Humphreys narrates through the voices of two characters: Harriet, a woman who lost her young husband Owen in the First World War, and Maeve, an artist who met Harriet on the day she saw Owen off to battle. Their carefree afternoon together was their last contact; their lives parted until that fateful night in November, 1940 when Coventry was bombed. That single event occupies the present time of the novel, which moves in memory from the cathedral (where Harriet and young Jeremy are fire-watchers as the attack begins) to Harriet’s life with Owen and her brief connection with Maeve; returning to Harriet and Jeremy as they make their way through the devastated city, helping some of the injured, searching for Jeremy’s mother.  As readers we feel a poignant depth of connection between the lives of these three people (along with the desperation of their search for safety). Yet we know more; we see facets of their relationship that remain hidden from the characters themselves, and it’s this tension between what the reader knows and the characters can’t see that drives the novel forward to its sorrowful conclusion.

There’s an epilogue that brings the story into the 1960s; Harriet’s a writer and Maeve’s an artist, and living at a distance from each other, they use poetry and drawing to communicate about a terrible night that has changed their lives forever. This is not about art “redeeming” a nightmare. It is about art as memory and how it dignifies the passage of time.  In Humphreys’ words: “Every act is an act of mourning…Every moment is about leaving the previous moment behind.” Maeve uses her artist’s gifts to hold on to what she has lost. Yet “the night still makes no sense, no matter how hard Maeve looks at it, no matter what pictures she is able to pull from the wreckage.”

The attack on Coventry and all the atrocities that have followed in our time will never make sense, and that is the great truth spoken by this small but penetrating work. What brings hope to these characters — without conferring “meaning” — is compassion and friendship in the wake of tragedy. Harriet and Maeve — and their creator — embody this truth in a beautiful work of fiction.

Coventry by Helen Humphreys was published in Toronto by Harper Collins Publishers Ltd. in 2008 (175pp).


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Hans Keilson’s Comedy In A Minor Key

There seems to be no end of books inspired by World War II, no doubt because we still have truths to absorb and lessons to learn from that conflict. This, at least, was the sense I had after reading Hans Keilson’s haunting novella, Comedy In A Minor Key.  The author, a psychotherapist, fought in the Dutch resistance and died this year at the age of 101, outliving by many years the trauma that shaped his life.  Kielson writes with gentle irony about the everyday domestic routines that hold insanity at bay during wartime.  Yet out of the calm of an ordinary household, he weaves a story of dark humour and edge-of-the-seat suspense.

His story is set during the Nazi occupation of Holland, where a young Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, hide a Jewish man, Nico. Only the most trustworthy people know about their guest, and the chronic fear of discovery seeps into the mood of a tranquil home. The cleaning lady runs into Nico as he peeks out of his room; later, the co-operative doctor who comes to tend the ailing fugitive has to find an alibi for his frequent visits.  Yet instead of discovery and death at the hands of his Nazi foes, Nico meets an ordinary fate when he dies of pneumonia and Wim and the doctor are left to dispose of the body in the dead of night. Successful in this nerve-wracking task , Wim’s informed by Marie of a glitch in their plan that would have been comic, had it not put their lives in danger.  Now the roles are reversed; their Jewish guest is safe in death and his hosts are on the run.

What makes this small book so compelling is its quiet tone, its depiction of the ordinary lives of two gentle people whose simple domesticity is juxtaposed with an exterior madness that we feel but never see. Tea and laundry, stacking wood and setting the table keep harsh realities at a distance: the far-off rumble of Allied bombers, the awareness that their country is under occupation, the knowledge that the world outside the house is full of suspicion and dread.  That troubled world is mirrored in the upstairs room where Nico is in hiding. Yet the writing conveys a mood of tranquility, while Nico’s presence disturbs the calm surface with an undertow of tension. That tug-and-pull makes for gripping reading.

Wim and Marie’s home shelters them in domesticity, and the calm deliberation in which they carry out their daily tasks allows a glimpse into the brave souls of the two main characters — and by extension, into the lives of many ordinary people who endured the war’s privations with strength and patience. It’s only when the couple flees their home that the reader senses the strains that circumstances have placed in their otherwise loving relationship. Their crisis ends, and in a beautiful scene during the evening blackout, they return home to touch and reclaim in darkness all that was once familiar and visible, all that must be understood in a new and poignant way.

Both ironic and tender, this novella is a nuanced exploration of a time in history that still has much to tell us about unimaginable bravery and the simple tasks of everyday that see us through the night.

Comedy in A Minor Key by Hans Keilson was translated from the German by Damion Searls and published in 2010 by Farrar Strauss and Giroux (New York).

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Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was On Time.

Our conventional idea of a well-constructed novel (or novella) has a narrative arc: beginning, middle and end, climax and resolution, an energetic plot dramatized by a protagonist and an antagonist with a conflict brewing between them. Good reading, but sometimes the structure’s too tidy for real life, where conflicts happen all the time, but resolution often sputters out like a damp firecracker. For writers of war stories, most modern wars have no “narrative arc” at all; they end not with surrender but with exhaustion, cease-fires and peace talks. The German writer Heinrich Böll knew this when he wrote his first novella The Train Was On Time. Germany was about to be defeated in World War II, and the only possible closure for his characters was death.

Published in 1949, the novella tells the story of Private Andreas, shipping out on a troop train to the eastern front. He’s aware that Germany is losing the war, and as the train leaves, he has an intimation that he’s bound to die. Because of the precision of the German trains, he’s convinced that he’ll be able to pinpoint both the exact time and the place of his death. He becomes obsessed with his imminent demise, and either in spite of, or because of what he knows is coming, every moment seems magnified in its importance, from the experience of eating sausage sandwiches packed for him by a chaplain to the card games and drinks shared with two other enlisted men.

Yet Andreas grows into a feverish awareness of the catastrophe that Germany has inflicted on the world. He drifts through memory in a dreamlike state, haunted by the imagined eyes of a woman he might have loved in France, praying at times for the suffering Jews until the line between dream and reality seems to dissolve. At last  Andreas and his companions end up in a brothel on what he believes is the last night of his life. It seemed predictable at first that he’d fall in love with his companion Olina, but not a sentimental note is struck in this brief non-sexual relationship. The brothel is staffed by patriotic Polish women, and the Germans are no safer than the ladies. Love unfolds, but there’s a unsettling ending to this story, one that confronts us with the truth that all of us share the same fate. Trapped in the jaws of violent history, that fate can be especially cruel.

No doubt the writing of this parable was an act of conscience — both to expiate the crimes committed by Germany and to signal Böll’s concern for morality and justice. With or without a narrative arc, the tale’s untidy ending speaks the truth. The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.

The Train Was On Time is by Heinrich Böll. This edition is translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz and published in Brooklyn, New York in 2011 by Melville House.


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Bear With Me — A Soldier’s Tale

As far as reading goes, we all have our guilty pleasures. Now I’ll admit mine — I’m nuts about animals. If it’s cute and furry, just pass the book this way. Only this time I think I’ve met my match with a true tale about a bear that’s not only incredibly endearing, brave, and kind-hearted but also historically significant. Meet Wojtek The Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr which recounts the true story of Private Wojtek (pronounced Voy-chek) who was enrolled in the twenty-second Company of the Polish Army Corps during World War Two, where he served not only as a mascot but as an active participant in battle.

His saga began in 1942 when Polish soldiers, recently freed from the Soviet gulag and serving with the British in Iran, bought the bear from a local child. Raised from a cub, Wojtek — which means happy warrior — modeled himself on the soldiers and thought himself one of them. He became tame, wandering around the camp, scarfing cookies and other treats, putting away a beer or two with his mates, and enjoying cigarettes, which he didn’t smoke, but ate lit (Just in case you’re skeptical about his antics, there are lots of photos in the book, and you can check Wojtek’s website at wojtekthebear.com). His transport unit made its way through Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Egypt before shipping off to Italy to the horrific battle of Monte Cassino. There Wojtek distinguished himself by hauling artillery shells to the front lines under enemy fire with no prompting from anyone. Polish forces won the battle, but at war’s end, unable to return to their occupied country, they were allowed by the British to decamp in Scotland.

Eventually Wojtek “retired” to the Edinburgh Zoo, where the author of this book met him when she was eight years old. Orr had never forgotten the bear’s happy wave when she said “hello” to him in Polish. Yet what makes this book more than a funny ursine version of MASH is the skillful way in which the author allows the dreadful situation of the Polish soldiers to shadow Wojtek’s often hilarious antics. The bear caper was, from the start, the act of men who’d lost everything to the Soviets — wives, children, families, possessions, homeland. Wojtek answered a need to give and receive both love and comfort, and it was a testament to these soldiers that despite their suffering in forced-labour camps, they were still capable of showing affection and kindness to an orphaned bear. One of the men, Lance Corporal Peter Prendys, acted as his chief caretaker, and as the story unfolds, Aileen Orr describes Peter’s relationship with Wojtek and gives us a sense of how the bear was solace for much of what he’d lost. Turning him over to the zoo was heartbreaking, as were the losses of war that were never redeemed, including the “big power” machinations that silenced Poland for generations.

The political cruelty of the war’s aftermath gives a thoughtful tone to this charming and nicely-written book. Its author spearheaded a successful campaign to erect a memorial in Edinburgh depicting Wojtek and his keeper, Peter Prendys. And oh yes, Wojtek has a Facebook page called Wojtek the Soldier Bear. Count me in as a fan.

That’s Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr, published in 2010 by Birlinn Limited in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone

I’ve just finished reading an astounding five-hundred-page novel called Every Man Dies Alone by the German writer Hans Fallada. The book was written in 1947, but was only translated into English two years ago. What took them so long??? This compelling and inspiring page-turner was written — believe it or not — in the space of twenty-four days by a man who’d spent much of the Second World War confined to a Nazi insane asylum. As one of the first novels to emerge from that dark period of history, it has a stunning, frightening immediacy. To read it is to experience with all five senses what living in Nazi Germany must have felt like. You might choose, as I did, to read this book on the beach, because now and again it helps to look up at the beauty of the day, to keep yourself anchored in the real and present world.

Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple in Berlin who decided to resist Hitler by writing messages of protest on hundreds of postcards, urging civil disobedience and workplace sabotage and by distributing these notes all over the city.  It was their hope that other citizens would pass the missives around and begin to act against the regime. It didn’t work out, either in fact or in fiction. Cowed and terrified by the Nazis, Berliners found the cards and turned almost all of them over to the police, yet even so, it took two and a half years before the couple were arrested. They were sentenced to death.

Knowing the bleak outcome, you may wonder why you’d want to read this book. To me, their simple act of resistance — as futile as it seemed —  was so stunning and so unheard of that I couldn’t help feeling that it deserved to be honoured through my reading. To read the saga of the fictional Otto and Anna Quangel is to rescue their deeds from oblivion and death. To read their story is to bear witness to the courage of people who speak the truth, even at the cost of their own lives. Is it a good read? And how. It’s both an action-packed thriller and a novel of ideas — about courage, truth-telling, moral integrity and the wisdom of a peaceful life in the face of sadism, cruelty, and stupidity. Most astonishing of all is the huge range of twenty or more distinctive characters. From the taciturn Otto Quangel to the conflicted cop Escherich, from Hetty the Gestapo-hating pet-shop owner to Eva the postal worker who delivers a form letter to the Quangels announcing the death of their soldier-son, each of these people is well-crafted, memorable, complex, and, by turns, profound, despicable and occasionally funny.

Every Man Dies Alone is a disturbing novel, but it’s a powerful affirmation of life, and the care Fallada took to delineate and enliven his characters stands as a confrontation of the savagery and inhumanity that his people endured. Don’t miss this book. Read it in sunlight, on a beautiful day. That’s Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hoffman, published in 2009 by Melville House Publishing.

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