GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2013
Two Brothers, by Ben Elton
Ben Elton is renowned for his enviable comic skills; he is a standup comedian of great repute, and a master scriptwriter of some of the great comic TV series of the last decade, ‘Blackadder’ being but one of his accomplishments. He is also a prolific author (where does he find the time!) and ‘Two Brother’s is his fourteenth novel.
This story is based on his family’s German-Jewish history; tragically, some of the most unspeakable incidents happening to his characters actually are part of his family’s oral record, yet more proof, if that were needed, of the hatred and bestiality that overcame so much of a formerly proud and civilised nation, held in thrall by a master trickster and his band of thugs.
In 1920, three babies are born: the first two are twins delivered to Frieda and Wolfgang Stengel, young Jews who, despite postwar hardship in their city Berlin, are determined optimists; Wolfgang has dreams of being a great Jazz composer – the first Jazz opera, no less! And Frieda is about to sit her final medical exams; she believes in helping and healing, and to be a doctor will fulfil that wish. Their babies are expected with delight and already much-loved – money will come from somewhere; they are both healthy and enthusiastic: love will find a way.
Sadly, one of the twins does not survive the birth, but Frieda is convinced to adopt at the hospital the son of a young woman who died in labour; she was not married and her parents want nothing to do with their bastard grandson. A hasty but legal adoption is arranged, and the couple go home with twins, even though one of them was not born to the Stengels, and is in fact of German peasant stock.
On the same day in 1920, another bastard child is born: the National Socialist Party under the leadership of an obscure Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler rears its head for the first time. Germany, with its smouldering resentment at the dishonourable terms of the treaty ‘settlement’ of Versailles, which demanded reparations that plunged the suffering country into even more poverty, and the French occupation of the Ruhrgebiet, is the perfect spawning ground for the ham-fisted dogma and hatred engendered by a few evil men with dreams of power: as the boys grow, so does the Nazi party, especially as rampant inflation becomes another ill that the German people must battle. It is easy to blame the Jewish population, so many of them banking professionals, for the plight that ordinary citizens face, and who better than rising politician Hitler and his henchmen to generate anti-Jewish propaganda, and make promises of ‘a better Germany, proud and strong once more’ – under his leadership: a land where the race can become pure again, without the pernicious influence of those sub-human Jews.
Mr. Elton uses the insidious rise of Nazism as a backdrop to his story of the twins, Paulus and Otto; their completely different personalities and strengths, the many battles they fight with each other, and the deep love they share for the same girl - Magda Fischer, a rich and beautiful Jewish music pupil of their father’s.
As Hitler’s hold on Germany becomes stronger, the Jewish noose is inexorably tightened. Despite succumbing often to purple prose, Mr Elton conveys with a storyteller’s skill the gradual, dreadful descent into the madness and destruction of the Second World War and the ingenious plans that Paulus and Otto contrive in their attempts to survive the Holocaust - so that between them they can prevent their beloved Magda from dying.
This is a gripping story, a page-turner of the first order. I have to say that Mr Elton sometimes plays fast and loose with slang and idiom from time to time, but never with the truth, as he recounts in an afterword at the book’s end. Many of the events in this novel have been disturbing and horrifying to read, made more immediate because of their authenticity, but it has been a deeply satisfying experience reading about those Everyman twins, brothers first, Jews second; united in their devotion to their family and in their love for their Jewish princess, Magda. Highly enjoyable.
Soon, by Charlotte Grimshaw
Simon Lampton and his family enjoy a privileged and enviable position: a close friendship with the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Hallwright, enabling them to be honoured houseguests at his palatial holiday home north of Auckland for the summer. For Simon and Karen his wife, it is a very satisfying time; they have reached social heights envied by their contemporaries and never dreamed of by themselves. Simon is a wealthy and successful obstetrician and gynaecologist but came from the very lowest of backgrounds; Karen is his trophy wife, another goal to be ticked off his list of life aspirations, along with the respect of his medical peers, beautiful home, BMW and children – whom he loves utterly: they are his reward, his bonus for the hard years of his childhood with an alcoholic father and the hard work of studying and establishing himself in a demanding medical field.
Life can’t get any better – can it?
Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold: the longer the Lamptons stay with the Hallrights, the more hidden agendas reveal themselves: the friendship with David on which Simon prides himself – ‘I never kowtow to him; I’m apolitical and always give him my honest opinion. That’s why we get on so well together’ – goes through subtle changes, partly caused by David’s glamorous second wife Roza, who holds all the males of the holiday household in thrall, including Simon. As the holiday progresses it becomes increasingly obvious that Roza doesn’t regard Simon and Karen as bosom buddies; she tolerates them charmingly for one reason: she wants their adopted daughter, Elke – because Roza is Elke’s natural mother: she couldn’t look after her when she was born, but she can now and begins an insidious campaign to win over the affections of the beautiful 18 year old.
Ms Grimshaw describes this tug of love with such articulacy that the reader feels palpably the steely determination of one character to possess, and the heartbreak and anguish of others finally aware of what they stand to lose. As they find themselves trapped in the cleverly-woven web of privilege and ambition, all masked by the paper-thin veneer of best-mateship, Simon and Karen have to decide which hard decisions to make, and how to keep that which they love most – as well as retaining their self-respect.
And this is not Simon’s only crisis: a shameful memory from the past rears its ugly head, threatening not just him and his cushy life but scandalous enough to cause big problems for his ‘best friend’ the Prime Minister. Simon Lampton’s envied existence is fast becoming intolerable.
Ms Grimshaw has given us a wonderful story, written with great pace and clarity. Her characters are a delight, each captured with elegant and astute observation – David Hallwright bears a striking resemblance to our own Dear Leader, John Key, and his party and policies are mercilessly dissected.
In my reading experience, no author can evoke mood, atmosphere and landscape more strongly than she, and it is a pleasure to read such a fine book. Highly recommended.