Sunday, September 11, 2011

Philip Kerr tells a very German version of World War II.

Philip Kerr has been compared to John Le Carre and Alan Furst. This is the first of his novels that I have read.

Field Gray

Field Gray (448 pages, Putnam, $26.95) is the seventh Bernie Gunther novel. Bernie is a non-Nazi German who is trapped and re-trapped in various mishaps before, during, and after the Second World War. Kerr uses him to offer a unique perspective on the conflict, and Bernie’s struggles tell us a lot that we might not have known about Germany, France, and Russia during the 1940s and 1950s.

As the novel opens, Bernie is picked up in 1954 when he is trying to help a young prostitute get out of Cuba. He is picked up by Americans and questioned about his connections to a much wanted East German, who was the head of the East German secret service, known as the Stasi.

In order to answer the demands of his peremptory interrogators, Bernie has to to reflect back on things that happened in Berlin in the early thirties, when he was a private investigator. At that time he came in contact with this figure, Erich Mielke, who is a committed communist in Wiemar Germany. As the Nazis start to come to power, Mielke becomes a hunted figure, and Bernie more than once finds himself in a position to help Mielke escape. Why he does this is only partly difficult to understand. Bernie sees Mielke as a kind of alter ego, and in a sense he envies him his deep belief in the communist ideal. Bernie doesn't really believe in anything.

Telling this story, in a rather disjointed and at times confusing way, takes us first through this thirties Berlin, and then, during the war, to France, where Bernie is sent to find Mielke, who is supposed to be a prisoner of war there. After a short time in occupied Paris, this is 1940, Bernie goes to the south to visit two prison camps there. The state of these camps and the cruelty of the French guards seems to be one of the points of Kerr’s narrative. More anti-Semitic than the Germans, Kerr seems to argue, these French functionaries were blood-thirsty and vindictive. When he spots Mielke in the crowds of impoverished prisoners, he refuses to point him out, in part because he does not want to play into the hands of the French.

Much later, Bernie finds himself in one horrifying Soviet labor camp after another. Now the question becomes one of mere survival, and the cruelty of the Russians now seems to be the main point of the narrative. Bernie escapes this horror, ironically, by means of Mielke, who is also trying to double-cross him. But that almost doesn’t faze Bernie, who is almost in awe of the power that Mielke wields.

Later in the novel, after more bad situations and personal struggles, Bernie is being pressured by the Americans to lead them to Mielke. It seems that Bernie has decided to help them, but when he is about to hand over the wanted man, he turns the tables on the Americans.

The ending is very satisfying if one can persevere through all the prison camps and interrogations. Kerr writes compellingly about this kind of conflict, but I cannot claim to enjoy thrillers of this kind. Kerr has done a lot just to keep my attention. But for readers who like this sort of thing, this is a great example. And, as I say, the ending is rewarding and well-worth the struggle to get there.

Philip Kerr

Field Gray is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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