Fatherland was Robert Harris’ bestselling debut. The interest in it is perfectly understandable; it promises an intriguing combination of a murder mystery in the fascinating setting of post-War Berlin – where Germany has won the war.
A body has washed up on a riverbank near Berlin, Germany. It is soon identified as Josef Bühler, a high-ranking Nazi, though one who is effectively retired. Xavier March, the detective who arrives on the scene, feels he is being coerced into declaring the death an accidental drowning and to end any investigation before it begins. But March is the obsessive, subversive, type and has nothing better to do in his life. So he presses on, perhaps hoping that all the loose ends will be tied up with no suggestion of anything sinister. On the other hand, he keeps searching beyond the easy answers, though he is well aware of the dangers of asking too many questions and knowing he is being watched.
He had narrowed his life to such a point that the only thing left was his work. If he betrayed that, what else was there?
And there was something else, the instinct that propelled him out of bed every morning into each unwelcoming day, and that was the desire to know.
It is an uneasy time in Berlin. Preparations are being made for the Führer’s 75th birthday and an impending visit by American President Joseph P Kennedy. Hopes are high for a new friendship between the United States and the Third Reich. This is 1964, in a world where Germany triumphed in the Second World War.
To me, Fatherland has two main sources of appeal. Like other novels set in imagined worlds, be they science-fiction, fantasy, dystopian or other; a large part of the appeal comes from enjoying the world the author has created for us. Harris used actual plans, drawn up by Albert Speer, for his description of post-war Berlin. While it is commendable that Harris would use such information, and such detail was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the novel, there is too little of it. The setting was too ordinary for too much of the time.
Harris does provide us with the gist of Germany’s victory; a defeat of Russia, a blockade and starvation into submission of Britain and intimidation of the US. He gives us a hint of increasing rebellion against the restrictions of the state amongst Germany’s youth and a guerrilla war in the East that seems unending. And he gives us a sense of the bureaucratic structure and functions of the Third Reich. Yet, these were all mere sidenotes and asides that do not impact the story much. I still wanted more and felt Harris should have given more. The story, the characters and hence the reader, float atop this imagined world rather than being immersed in it.
It is for this reason that it is possible to talk about the two main appeals separately, since they largely are. Which brings me to that second appeal; the story. Unfortunately, I don’t think Harris nailed this down either. I have not read much detective fiction. I haven’t even read any of the classics like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler. Yet, I can’t help but feel that there was a lot of cliché in Fatherland. The main detective being middle-aged, jaded, divorced, obsessive, a maverick who smokes too much. The witness who becomes his accomplice is a younger woman, alluring, available, but strong-willed and antagonistic. There is attempted noir here but I am not sure it came off.
The dialogue felt clichéd as well:
“Where did you learn to fight?”
He was in the tiny kitchen, bent over the sink. She was mopping blood from the cut on the back of his head.
“Try growing up as the only girl in a family with three brothers. You learn to fight.”
I think when you read novels like this, you want to be artfully fooled. You want to be lead down a path that seems plausible enough, though with a few unknowns, only to be shown an alternative, more troubling, path that makes everything clear even though you might not have guessed it. I don’t think Fatherland contained enough surprises. If you were to ask yourself what could be Germany’s big state secret in a world where they win the Second World War; it is what your first guess would be.
At this point it may sound like I hate-read Fatherland, not wanting to enjoy it, but I assure you that is not the case. I have been reading a lot of long, involved, classic fiction lately and have been feeling a need for some light entertainment and I tagged Harris as someone I had not yet read who might offer it. Especially since he has written a trilogy set in Ancient Rome and centred around Cicero. But I was disappointed by The Ghost, and now by Fatherland. Since the Cicero Trilogy would be a big investment, and getting a setting like Ancient Rome right is important to me, I think I am going to have to let it slide. I feel much safer in the hands of Robert Graves (I, Claudius) or Marguerite Yourcenar (Memoirs of Hadrian). I used to read a fair bit of pop fiction – Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, Stephen King – and I wonder if reading the classics has spoiled it for me.
After a good beginning, from the pleasure of entering this world and the sense the mystery, followed by a disappointing middle, I do think Fatherland got better towards the end. As the story becomes less of a detective story and more of an espionage story, and the pace and tension rises, it does finish better. I just wish it held more imagination, more substance and more surprise.