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PRAGUE FATALE
by Philip Kerr
Putnam, April 2012
448 pages
$25.95
ISBN: 0399159029


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Recent novels in this series that details the life and times of Bernie Gunther have provided fairly sweeping accounts of key periods in Bernie's life. IF THE DEAD RISE NOT, for example, begins in 1934 in Berlin as Hitler is consolidating his power and preparing for a propaganda coup with the forthcoming Olympics. It then skips some twenty years to find Gunther in Havana, with the fall of Batista looming. The next, FIELD GREY, begins in Cuba but, via a series of official interrogations into Bernie's status as a possible war criminal, focusses on several dubious periods in his past, including his service in the SS in Belarus in 1941 and his association with Heydrich. PRAGUE FATALE narrows the focus to a few weeks in 1941, when Bernie is seconded from his police duties in Berlin to serve as Heydrich's bodyguard in Bohemia (what the German occupiers were calling Czechoslovakia), where he is supposed to find out who was responsible for an attempt on his boss's life.

The period is a transitional one in Germany - the lightning successes of the early war have slowed, the Soviet Union is beginning to look like a very tough opponent, the British are bombing Berlin, and both military personnel in the East and civilians at home are being made increasingly aware of how the anti-Semitic rhetoric is being applied through means that make at least some Germans uncomfortable. The requirement that all Jews wear a yellow star strikes some Berliners as positively medieval, though others of course are pleased to know just who all the Jews are. Worse, of course, is what is happening in Belarus, where soldiers and military police are being required to shoot unarmed civilians - men, women, and children, old and young, Jewish and partisans, real or imagined. For some, even in the SS, wholesale murder is more than they can square with their idea of honour and they crumble under the strain. It was, at least in part, to spare the sensibilities of those ordered to kill that Gunther's boss, Heydrich, developed the plans for the mechanized murder of the Final Solution.

Bernie is not immune to the strain - far from it - but his response is to play a dangerous, quasi- suicidal verbal game in which he communicates his opposition to what is happening around him, but leaves enough ambiguity that his reservations can be overlooked if it is convenient. But although he declares that he is contemplating suicide, Gunther is just too much of a survivor to step over an irrevocable line that will get him shot if he is lucky, worse if he is not. And in the end, regardless of his reservations, self-preservation guides him. He makes a few impotent and futile gestures of support, but he makes no difference whatsoever to what happens to the victims of the Gestapo.

PRAGUE FATALE is brilliantly conceived and plotted. Kerr has come up with the clever notion of collecting some of Nazism's worst disciples in an isolated country mansion in occupied Bohemia, where a murder takes place in a locked room la Agatha Christie (one of Heydrich's favourite writers), and sending in Bernie Gunther to act the role of Hercule Poirot, albeit with a Berlin accent. Why might it matter who among this houseful of mass murderers is responsible for the death of one of Heydrich's adjutants is a question that crosses Gunther's mind more than once, but good policeman to the core, he does his best. Nothing is simple in this mad world, and the plot coils and twists about itself before coming to its darkly ambiguous conclusion.

Philip Kerr originally thought to call this installment of Bernie Gunther's life story "The Man with the Iron Heart," a phrase drawn from Hitler's eulogy of Heydrich, only to discover that a previous novel, an alternative history, had already been published under that title. There is, however, more than one iron heart involved in PRAGUE FATALE, along with an alarming number of Iron Crosses. Even Bernie has one of those. He may once have believed that despite all that he had seen and done, he was still a moral person, but he now must concede that he was wrong. He deserves, he says, whatever is coming to him. He may try to effect one last tiny bit of good, but to be successful, he will have to dissemble - worse, he says, he will have to "harden my heart until it is made of iron. Like a true Nazi." No degree of detachment, irony, cynicism is enough to separate him from the consequences of his essential impotence in the face of evil, and he will have to try to live with that. Others of course will not live at all.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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