Review: Fiction: Two Brothers by Ben Elton
Bantam Books, £18.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
Ben Elton was once asked on a chat show why everyone seemed to dislike him so much. It's because they hate success, the writer and comedian replied. "No," the comic Stewart Lee later responded, "it's because people in this country just hate Ben Elton."
Which was cruel, but funny, There certainly doesn't seem to be much that Ben Elton does to please the critics. It probably has something to do with the fact that, having spearheaded the alternative comedy revolution, creating The Young Ones and co-writing three Blackadder series, he later went on to be such a pillar of the cultural establishment and wrote the musical We Will Rock You, based on the music of Queen.
There is, though, no denying the range of his talent. He's written 13 novels, ranging from satire to "dad lit" to thrillers, and his latest is another change of direction. The 'Two Brothers' of the title are born in Berlin on the same day that the Nazi Party was formed, and the novel parallels their lives from then until the war, with intercutting chapters bringing the story up to date in post-war London, where one of them now lives.
Much of this material is very familiar, from the rampant inflation and jazz-age decadence of the Weimar Republic, to the rise of Hitler, Kristallnacht, the 1936 Olympics, Anschluss with Austria, and the creeping effect of anti-Jewish persecution foreshadowing the horrors of the Holocaust to come.
This is the story of one Jewish family caught up in evil times, with the twist that one of the brothers, being adopted, turns out, to his despair, not to be Jewish at all but a pure-blooded Aryan who therefore has the chance to escape the others' fate. Should he take it? And if one brother should survive, which one should it be?
Ten years later, the brother who escaped receives a letter from behind the Iron Curtain, purportedly from the woman with whom they were both in love, and whom he had believed dead. Is it really from her? Or is he being lured into a trap by East Germany's secret police?
The book then is about identity. Their personal identity as Jews, as Germans, as brothers. Even in post-war England, the questions remain. Who were they really? For the author, the question of identity is clearly a personal one too.
In an afterword, Elton reveals that the novel was inspired by the real life experience of his own family, who came to England as Jewish refugees from Hitler's Germany and anglicised their name from Ehrenburg to Elton. Knowing this definitely gives an added poignancy to the narrative, though Two Brothers works tremendously on its own terms, with a cast of warm and well rounded characters in whose fate one can't help but become involved, and numerous scenes of almost unbearable tension.
The end, when it comes in communist East Berlin, may be explanation-heavy in the manner of a traditional detective novel, but is incredibly moving too, as the fates of those with whom contact was lost during the war is finally revealed, again with some very satisfying multiple identity switches. More importantly, this is a book that keeps full control of its author's own tendency to didacticism. Even when Elton draws some very pertinent parallels between the treatment of West Indian immigrants in England and that of Jews in Germany, it's done quietly and with admirable fair-mindedness, as the German confesses that, despite everything, Britain remains the "most tolerant country" he knows -- "and the funny thing is they don't even know it".
Here's hoping this generous and humane book finally persuades his British detractors to show some of that same tolerance to Ben Elton and finally forgive him for We Will Rock You.