Review: Fatherland

Fatherland by Robert Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fatherland was, it seems, first published 1992. The paperback I have, came out in 1993. How I have managed to avoid this one for so long? As The Who once said; ‘I can’t explain.’

It is a really compulsive thriller, a detective story – but one with a difference. A huge difference. It is 1964. just before Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday. The Queen lives in Canada, as does Winston Churchill. Though, not together, I don’t think. A US President is on his way for a summit with the Fuhrer visit Berlin. Kennedy is his name. Not the one you’re thinking. Or that one. I guarantee. So, we are in a bleak, alternative world where the Nazis weren’t beaten by the Allies. Russia didn’t push the German army back from Moscow and were themselves pushed back eastwards. The war in the east is still going on, still claiming lives and still unresolved. Most of the rest of Europe is now either under German rule or effectively a puppet state for the new Germany the Nazis have created in their image, to more or less do with what they will.

Thankfully, this is just fiction. The more you read, the more thankfully you’ll be. I read parts of it and was sometimes glad I could look away and put it down. We owe it to the people who aren’t with us, who can’t put it down and look away, to continue reading. And remembering the reality.

A body is found floating in a lake near Berlin. Detective Xavier March takes the call and the case, though he knows, even at the outset, he really shouldn’t have. He’s right. Whilst being a reasonably successful detective and a seeming pillar of the Nazi community as such, March turns out to be actually not all that enamoured with life in the New Reich. But he is in no way prepared for how bad he finds it actually is, under the surface. The tension builds, turns are twisted, suspicion breeds and secrets slowly teased out and exposed. A conspiracy is uncovered and begins to claim its victims.

Fatherland is a thriller on the face of it. Though because of the quality of the writing and the execution and delivery of the ingenious plot, it is much more. And thought-provokingly chilling. Because it easily could have been. Harris calmly and assuredly builds his characters, his plot and themes begin to seem normal and so the book’s tension mounts. Almost without you realising. It is really an inspiring master class of writing, that raises the thriller far above its usual semi-disposability. You’re not going to forget this in a hurry. Nor should you.

In the end, stepping back, what I think Harris is saying is that we’re (still) in essence dealing with common criminals covering their tracks. March says at one point: “‘What do you do…if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for?” They weren’t supermen, they were little, frustrated men, given the opportunity to do what they wanted without fear of reprisal. Pride refused to countenance an alternative or an end to their twisted Utopia. When reality returned, they merely scurried to cover their tracks.

OK, this sort of ‘what if Germany had won?’, story-line had been done a few times before Harris – Len Deighton‘s SSGB springs instantly to my mind, for example. But I doubt very much it has been done any better than this. I’m sure I found the roots of other writers’ work here. Surely Philip Kerr and David Downing read this before starting writing their – equally good – stories? I don’t know if they did, it’s just a maybe. See what you think.

A haunting and moving book. With a finale as affecting as anything I’ve read in many a long year.

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