Thursday 14 December 2017

Review: The Betrayed by Christy Kenneally

Hachette, €12.99

Christy Kenneally is an oddity. I mean that in the best sense of the word: although he has presented a large number of television documentaries and travel shows (RTE's No Frontiers for example), this Cork man with the highly individual voice is a most unlikely TV celebrity.



For one thing he is an ex-priest (which must have been a help in writing three thrillers featuring a detective called Father Flaherty); for another thing he's essentially a scholar with a deep knowledge of European cultures.

All of these characteristics, except the Irishness, get a good run-out in this new novel, the first part of a trilogy aimed at the international market.

It is the story of Max Steiger and Karl Hamner growing up in a small village in Austria and falling in love with Elsa, a bright and independent young woman.

Although World War Two has started -- the book begins in 1940 -- it hasn't yet transformed their lives. But when Elsa dies brutally, Max flees to Zagreb in Croatia and soon thereafter Karl is conscripted into the Nazi army.

Max becomes a priest, after a single day of instruction. And Karl is caught up in the invasion of Russia.

That world-changing event, Operation Barbarossa, takes the story to another level. Kenneally concentrates on how the Vatican, in particular Pope Pius XII and the forceful French Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, deal with the invasion and, later, with the deportation of Rome's Jews.

In the fiction, the Biblically bearded Tisserant doesn't think the pope is up to the job. It's hard to disagree: although Pope Pius was pious, an innocent mammy's boy, he was less interested in the Gospel than the government of the church, blind to evil, cold to suffering.

The blindness could be comic: the German advance on the Soviet Union presented an opportunity, in the pope's mind, for sending in priests to evangelise the newly conquered peoples of central Europe. Never mind the chaos, let's do the conversions.

The indifference to suffering brings Kenneally to his other main theme: the destruction of half a million Orthodox Christian Serbs by the Ustashe fascists in Croatia. This is a story that is probably little-known to Irish readers, but though it's complicated, it's also amazingly horrible.

This reader, for example, was inclined to disbelieve Kenneally's depiction of a Franciscan who delights in butchering men, women and children. But there was such a priest, Fra Filipovic, and after the war he was hanged for his crimes.

While Max is not in the same class as the Franciscan, he is not much better. And his connection to Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac allows the reader an insight into another fascinating historical character.

Cardinal Stepinac, imprisoned after the war by the communists, was a fascist sympathiser -- and yet the Vatican beatified him and he was undoubtedly a friend to the Jews.

Karl, too, has historical connections. He gets close to General Kluge, the leader of the invasion, who later plotted to kill Hitler and when the plot failed killed himself.

All of this makes no mention of a host of other characters and other sub-plots. There's Edwin Unger, for instance, a German spy behind the Russian lines who murders and gets murdered.

And Frau Mende, a herbalist who feeds Max a potion that knocks him out and prevents him being questioned about Elsa's disappearance.

Then there are substantial roles for a huge variety of important Soviet leaders, including Stalin, Marshal Zhukov and the hideous Lavrenty Beria, who in his spare time trawled the night-time streets of Moscow for women. As Kenneally puts it: "Whether they stepped or were dragged into the official limousine was immaterial to Beria."

The Betrayed is 432 pages long, and there are five pages of biographical notes on the historical players, and yet it's still bursting at the seams with information. But while the facts are always intensely interesting, the fiction is inclined to sink into melodrama.

The characters also tend to speak as if they are reciting from a history book -- Tisserant, for example, hardly needs to tell the pope that Angelo Roncalli, the future John XXIII, "is our nuncio in Istanbul".

All in all, one is left with the impression that Kenneally would be more comfortable if he wasn't so keen on informing and entertaining the uneducated reader. But if that's a sin, it's an odd one.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, screenwriter and poet.

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