Monday, September 22, 2014

Nazis on the Knightsbridge High Street

Tony Schumacher, The Darkest Hour: A Novel

Reading Tony Schumacher’s debut novel, I couldn’t help recalling Children of Men. I mean Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning 2006 movie, not PD James’ original 1992 novel, which has a significantly different storyline. Though Schumacher doesn’t apishly copy Cuarón, he uses the same journey form, the same rediscovery of self stifled by bureaucratic meaninglessness, that lifted Cuarón above a crowded field. Schumacher could follow suit.

Sergeant John Henry Rossett won the Victoria Cross for leading fellow soldiers valiantly out from Dunkirk. But after the Nazis occupied London, Rossett got seconded to the Office of Jewish Affairs. One routine Jewish roundup uncovers a terrified little boy behind the fireplace, awakening the soul Rossett thought murdered when a Resistance bomb killed his son. Now Rossett’s fleeing his former SS handlers, trying to offer little Jacob a future.

Like Cuarón, Schumacher prefers the journey his hero undertakes to the destination he achieves. Rossett begins as a skillful killer who, bereaved, has fallen into hollow routine. As a Jew catcher, he just follows orders—no excuse, certainly, but orders mean something different when disobedience merits on-the-spot execution. Winston Churchill called Rossett the British Lion; the Nazis’ substitute PM, Oswald Mosley, considers him a liability and an embarrassment.

But when Rossett finds himself possessing a Jewish child he cannot simply put on a train, the sense of obligation changes him. Jacob’s a kid, dammit! A Jew kid, certainly, and one whose very presence on Rossett’s arm at a parade rally nearly gets him killed. Rossett quickly learns, however, the lesson Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler also discovered, that killing Jews is easy when they’re anonymous crowds. Individuals with names are harder to kill.

In Schumacher’s world, the British Resistance divides into two camps, the Royalists and the Communists. (I’d’ve included the IRA, but Schumacher makes a persuasive argument for leaving them out.) Rossett, suddenly alienated from his SS masters, finds both Resistance camps would gladly exploit him; neither will help him survive. With a child under his protection, though, Rossett cannot simply die. Thus he rediscovers how to kill for his cause.

Parts of Schumacher’s story are shockingly violent. His Nazis, unsurprisingly, care little for individual human lives, permitting others to die for inscrutable ideological purposes. But that atmosphere of violence requires resistors and fugitives to respond likewise. Shockingly visceral torture is common on both sides, and Rossett proves an adept impromptu killer. Schumacher doesn’t prettify violence as some writers do; he also doesn’t make violence honorable or redemptive.

He does, however, make it fast. Schumacher’s narrative cracks with cinematic briskness that sweeps readers along. He makes engaging scene breaks that hasten momentum, making readers want to stick with it, and keeps philosophizing to a minimum. Besides Cuarón, Schumacher’s storytelling bespeaks influences like Scorcese, Ang Lee, and Danny Boyle. Any big-screen adaptation of this novel would virtually write itself.

I don’t make cinematic comparisons lightly. As a former journalist, Schumacher, a native Liverpudlian, writes with dense literary panache; but his short chapters, teletype dialog, and action-driven narrative read, sometimes, like a screen treatment. You decide whether that’s good. He certainly makes himself difficult to ignore. Considering the short attention spans plaguing contemporary Anglophonic culture, a novel with big-screen kinetic force may perhaps get jaded audiences to sit and read.

To his credit, Schumacher also avoids the tendency, common in writers handling Nazi themes, to moralize. His principle SS character, Koehler, succeeds because he isn’t some Brownshirt from central casting. Koehler appears affable, Anglophilic, and warm to anybody who advances his desires—which are, mainly, to survive. He cares little for Nazi ideology. But his ability to shift abruptly into full SS wrath, without breaking face, makes him truly terrifying.

Schumacher creates a world where trust is always provisional, where lies become the unofficial economic currency, and where people rediscover the will to live when they find what they’re willing to die for. Despite its historical setting, this novel touches on very real contemporary needs. Maybe today’s English-speaking world isn’t occupied by Nazis; but Schumacher’s depictions of meaningless routine and casual savagery seem mighty familiar from contemporary working-class trenches.

Let’s not kid here: I haven’t felt this excited for a British novel since JK Rowling and China Mieville first made the scene. If Schumacher’s writing is derivative, he steals only from the best. If he writes like a filmmaker, it’s a film I’d love to see. Even Schumacher’s ambiguous ending kept me reading. Because Rossett’s problems are our problems; his journey, which never truly ends, is our journey.

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