Wednesday 23 August 2017

Accomplished reminder of history's horrifying lessons

Fiction: The Draughtsman, Robert Lautner, The Borough Press, €15.99

A picture taken just after the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in January 1945
A picture taken just after the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in January 1945
The Draughtsman by Robert Lautner

Patrick Kelleher

Robert Lautner's latest novel, The Draughtsman, makes multiple references to Goethe, the famous German writer. Goethe's ghoulish presence in the novel makes sense, too. As in Goethe's play Faust, Ernst in The Draughtsman enters into a sort of deal with the devil, working with the SS to create furnaces for concentration camps.

A young German man and a recent graduate, the novel opens as Ernst secures his first job in war-era Germany. The new job comes as a relief to Ernst, who had been unemployed following graduation. However, he soon discovers that the job is much more sinister than it might appear. He finds himself annotating, drawing, and designing ovens - or furnaces - to be used in concentration camps to burn the bodies of those killed.

Ernst finds himself with a difficult choice: he can either voluntarily leave his job, going back to unemployment, or he can continue working in designing the "ovens", despite the moral ambiguities. Ultimately, he must confront whether he should do what is right, or what is easy.

That choice becomes exponentially more complex as the novel progresses. As the war continues to develop and Germany becomes an increasingly dangerous place to live, Ernst discovers that he may not have a choice at all. When he finds out a shocking truth about his wife's past, his role within the war becomes even more complicated. His working life begins to ebb into his personal life, but leaving his job may not be as easy as he once thought.

Gripping from beginning to end, The Draughtsman is a highly accomplished second novel from British author Lautner. However, it is not always easy reading. He does not shy away from the challenges of writing about World War II-era Germany, and this is most evident in the passages about concentration camps. It is in these passages that Lautner's work is most moving. Descriptions of Auschwitz and Buchenwald are horrifying in how real they feel. Lautner engages with human suffering on a personal level, making it all the more difficult to read.

One of The Draughtsman's greatest strengths is in offering a human side to the instigators of oppression and suffering, making each character even more complex and fascinating to pore over. Ernst himself is engaged in work that is being actively used to burn victims from concentration camps. Lautner also writes in depth of two SS officers. While we can hate them for their appalling actions, he also makes them human. He presents the lives behind the officers, reminding us that even villains have a back story. It is a necessary reminder that people who do bad things are not always intrinsically evil, but can become that way.

Perhaps most powerfully, the novel is also deeply affecting in how relevant it is today. Descriptions of refugees fleeing their country to seek safer ground are particularly unsettling as they are so grounded in what is happening right now. Lautner skilfully links history with the present, and offers a beautifully written, painful reminder that history is often bound to repeat itself.

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