Tuesday 24 April 2018

A daring old-pals act to overthrow Hitler



Robert Harris

Hutchinson, trade paperback, 338 pages, €15.99

Robert Harris
Robert Harris
Munich by Robert Harris
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Over the course of 25 years and nearly a dozen novels, Robert Harris has established a stellar reputation and a unique place for himself in publishing. The blurb for Munich - centred on the famous 1938 "peace" conference between Hitler, Chamberlain and other European leaders - describes Harris as "the master of the intelligent thriller", but this almost damns the Englishman with faint praise.

Harris's books are thrillers of a sort, yes. But he's more than a purveyor of genre entertainment (not that there's anything wrong with that, I might add).

His plots are constructed along the lines of a mystery or thriller, and all are genuinely exciting to read - I hammered through this with giddy speed. But there's a serious depth and ambition, too.

Harris tackles big themes: power, ethics, the devil-angel duality of human nature, the great (sometimes) invisible forces which shape history. They're psychologically perspicacious, intellectually curious, morally courageous - and beautifully written.

His style is cool, elegant and un-showy. And Harris is capable of stunning prose, which manages that most coveted, and difficult, of authorial tricks: to capture something essential, or make us see the world anew, in a few lines.

Take this description of Paul Hartmann, one of Munich's two main characters, gazing out the window of Hitler's armoured train as it powers across Germany: "He had the sensation of voyaging in a liner across an ocean of unmeasurable extent. This immensity was what he had never been able to convey to his (English) friends, whose concept of their own nationality was so nicely bounded by a coast - this hard wide vast landscape, fertile in its genius, limitless in its possibilities, which demanded a constant effort of will and imagination to order it into a modern state."

What wonderful writing: it encapsulates and explains so much of what drove the German nation to furies of madness in the mid-20th century - and also what has made them one of the most intelligent, cultured and influential races in history.

Harris is not so much a skilled craftsman, then, as a gifted artist, and he puts both craft and art in the service of Munich. The novel runs on parallel lines, drawn together towards the end.

As Hitler and Chamberlain arrange a crucial conference to discuss the Sudetenland cession to Germany, the threat of war hangs in the air, unbearably heavy. Hartmann is a German diplomat and secret anti-Nazi. His old Oxford pal Hugh Legat works for the Foreign Office. Carefully, interested parties on both sides arrange for them to meet in Munich, where Hartmann can pass Legat documents which prove Hitler's pan-European ambitions and could scupper any peace deal.

He wants Germany to go ahead and declare war on - well, pretty much everyone - convinced that the army will then step in and depose the dictator in a coup. (It's a somewhat hare-brained plan, admittedly, but better than nothing.) The clock is ticking and the SS are watching, as Hartmann and Legat risk, respectively, life and career to pull off this daring act of espionage.

Munich follows Harris's Fatherland, An Officer and a Spy and the Cicero Trilogy in fashioning fiction around fact. It also follows Fatherland and the non-fiction Hitler Diaries in using the Nazis as inspiration and backdrop.

I wouldn't consider Munich on a par with his truly great books - Fatherland, Enigma, The Ghost - but it's very good; really, Harris is incapable of less. As a thriller, it doesn't work as well as those others; at least the ending doesn't. The book sputters out a little; with too much unresolved and a vague sense of anti-climax.

But it's undeniably gripping for most of its run. Harris somehow makes real-life events - where we already know the ending - seem incredibly exciting and unpredictable, open to endless possibilities. We know this deal was signed and Hitler's reign of mayhem lasted seven more years; but while reading we suspend, not our disbelief, but our belief in historical reality.

Munich works best, I think, as an examination of that most enduring, torturous human story: power and corruption. There are a few allusions to modern-day politics - the Nazi dream to "make Germany great again", the use of media to manipulate the masses - but not too many, and subtly stated.

These innate flaws in mankind are universal, across time and geography; though we're reminded here, throughout, of just how extraordinarily awful a creature Hitler was.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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