Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Order of the Day
Éric Vuillard (Picador £12.99; e-book £7.55)
This book won the author the most highly prized French literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 2017. It is an intelligently written, insightful and moving work.
In a slim 129 pages, Éric Vuillard takes us along an arc from a meeting of German industrials in February 1933, when they gave Goering, the President of the Reichstag, significant financial support concluding with the recapitulation of their companies' unbridled use of forced labour from the concentration camps of their political masters. He makes the little noticed point that these men and their companies continued their businesses post-war and continue as major household names: Varta, Thyssen Krupp, BMW, Opel. In a damning denouement, the author points out that survivor claimants were paid a paltry $1,250, which after reducing to $500, ceased for a so called lack of funds.
In the remainder of the narrative, which is beautifully written and thought provoking, the author describes the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, with the French and UK acceding to the German demands as the policy of appeasement is followed. Of the close of the Munich conference, he writes: “This great jumble of misery, in which horrific events are already taking shape, is dominated by a mysterious respect for lies. Political manoeuvring tramples facts. And the declarations of our leaders will soon be blown away like tin roofs in a hurricane.”
A recently published book (as yet only in German), entitled Das Braune Netz, follows numerous Nazi party members who held significant post-war roles in West Germany. It is little known that in 1949, only four years after the end of the war and the carpet bombing of many major cities in Germany, 46,154 VW motor cars were produced, with the millionth rolling off the production line six years later. It was led by Heinrich Nordhoff, who had been identified as a former Nazi office holder and was dismissed from his post at Opel. Industry was not alone. Across all sectors, including the judiciary, former Nazis took up post and got the country back on its feet. Vuillard sheds light where less is (in English) currently available.
And Fire Came Down
Emma Viskic (Pushkin: £8.99; e-book £1.99)
There seems to be no sign as yet that the flood of top-notch crime fiction novels from Australia is abating. And Fire Came Down is Emma Viskic’s second book, and a return for troubled private detective Caleb Zelic.
Still haunted by the events of the first in the series, in which he was apparently betrayed by his business partner, Caleb is managing to keep his agency afloat by taking on boring but straightforward work – background checks and the like – which allow him to work alone and avoid engaging with the outside world. However, all of that changes when he’s approached in a Melbourne back street by a young woman begging for help. He doesn’t recognize her, but she seems to know who he is. When he then sees her being pursued and killed in front of him, he investigates further and discovers that she was from his hometown of Resurrection Bay, which means that he needs to go back and confront his demons, including his reformed drug addict brother, his estranged wife, his strong-willed mother in law, and his deceitful former partner.
Like much of the new wave of Australian crime, And Fire Came Down combines an almost old-fashioned reverence for careful plotting with salty dialogue, and a sense that the drought-ravaged landscape is a character in itself. Add to that some uncomfortable racial tensions and Caleb’s deafness – refreshingly used to inform his personality, rather than as a lazy plot point – and you have compelling evidence that Viskic is starting to emerge as a major talent.
Robert Menasse (MacLehose: £15; e-book £6.99)
Another winner of a foreign book prize: the German Book Prize 2017.
No matter one's view on Brexit and the current attempts by Parliament to find an elegant mode of disentanglement, this superb satire will give you light relief. Through a wide range of characters, the author shows us the true purpose of the EU, but the lengths to which its decision making can be taken.
The EU's popularity with the people of Europe is on the wane. The 50th anniversary of the founding of the Commission is approaching and needs to be celebrated, in doing so raising the standing of the EU institutions with the people. It falls to DG Culture. Fenia Xenopoulou is determined to rise through the ranks of EU bureaucrats and to move from DG Culture to the more prominent DG Trade. She sees an opportunity to raise her profile with those who can shape her career when her assistant, Martin Sussman, comes up with the idea upon which the EU can celebrate the anniversary. Sussman suggests Auschwitz should be central to those celebrations, and farcical results follow as EU statisticians are set the task of identifying the number of surviving Jews who suffered in the camps.
His idea is initially taken up with gusto, being symbolic of the purpose of the creation of the closer community of states. Needless to say, around this, Menasse shows us the decision making process on which the project's success will be determined. Various themes are interwoven: one being the EPP, the European Pig Producers – as opposed to the true European People's Party grouping, which formerly included the UK Conservative Party until Cameron took them out in his attempt to address party Euroscepticism – which seeks EU support in the trade war with China over the supply of pork. A wonderful, timely satire.