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A MAN WITHOUT BREATH
by Philip Kerr
Putnam/ A Marian Wood Book, April 2013
480 pages
$26.95
ISBN: 0399160795


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

To return to Bernie Gunther's Germany is to step into a world of exquisite ironies. Chief among these at the outset of this latest installment in Gunther's life story is the news (to me at least) that the Wehrmacht had a Bureau of War Crimes. While one might imagine that the very notion of a war crime would be the last idea that the German High Command might want to highlight, in fact the Bureau's remit was to investigate atrocities committed by Germany's enemies, chiefly the Soviets. Bernie Gunther is attached to the department and the war crime investigation he is sent to oversee is one that took place in Russia in 1940, when the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, killed some 15,000 Polish nationals, the majority of them officers in the Polish army.

Of course, the Bureau of War Crimes is not interested in exposing Allied excesses in the pursuit of higher justice and the more humane waging of war. What it is after is a propaganda coup that might deflect public attention away from the activities of the SS and, in this case, drive a wedge between the US and the Soviets. Since the Russian campaign has already gone badly and is about to go much, much worse, the Minister of Propaganda is looking for any edge he can find. Thus Bernie is summoned to an interview with Joseph Goebbels himself who turns out to be uncomfortably familiar with Bernie's own past history. Bernie may talk a good line in cynical subversion, but confronted with Goebbels, he is only too eager to please, crafting the scheme (the one actually employed) of asking an international committee of Red Cross representatives, invitees from neutral countries, and even some Allied prisoners of war, to act as witnesses that the mass grave at Katyn was indeed the site of a Soviet, not a Nazi, massacre. After the interview with Goebbels is over, Bernie is full of self-disgust: "it seemed to me that my own shadow had more substance and character than I did, as if the body occluding the light behind it had been cursed into spineless insignificance by some evil troll." The spell he is under, Bernie must admit, is the same as for every German not yet dead, that of fear.

If we are honest, we must admit that the fear was legitimate and that we too might well have succumbed to it. But it was as well the universal explanation given by Germans after the war for why they felt helpless to resist the Nazi power that they said appalled them all. The consequences are apparent in what Bernie finds himself doing in the course of the book - fear of exposure makes him act in a way that is antithetical to his idea of himself as a good policeman. Still, at this point (March 1943) in the sorry history of the Thousand Year Reich, discontent with the regime is becoming more and more evident in various circles.

Bernie finds himself closely associated with several of them. He becomes aware that Colonel von Gersdoff of the Abwehr is part of a circle of Prussian aristocrats, Henning von Tresckow chief among them, who are undertaking a series of assassination plots aimed at Hitler. Bernie from Berlin takes a dim view of the lot of them, feeling that von Tresckow, "like all of his class disliked Hitler a lot more than he had ever loved the republic and democracy." In Bernie's view, it is their class bias that dooms all their valiant attempts on Hitler's life to failure, as cold-blooded murder of the sort that might succeed offends their code of honour. Thus he cannot quite trust them or enter whole-heartedly into their schemes, though he certainly will keep their confidences and his fingers crossed that they might succeed.

But if he will not actively enter the resistance, how can Bernie maintain his self-respect? Not easily, especially in this phase of his career. He puts his faith in being a good cop, finding out who is responsible for several murders, and bringing him to justice. It's about all he can do - the reader will have to judge if it is enough.

I really do wish that the US publisher had resisted the temptation to decorate the cover with yet another Lili Marleen avatar - the love affair that justifies her is a minor element in a complexly plotted book. The full-lipped, heavily-lipsticked, thick-browed dame on her back, versions of which have appeared on the last few Bernie Gunther novels, misrepresent the central theme of the series, which is less about an old and cinematic noir sensibility than about the sort of difficult and ambiguous moral choices that still confront us. The covers of the British series, with their featureless male figures, isolated in a cold, hard landscape, strike me as much closer to the heart of the books.

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

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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