As Marty McFly found out, tampering with history is a dangerous game; tweak one little bit of the past and you risk unravelling the present. But fiddling with the “What Ifs” is a rich subject for storytellers and re-imagining the past, and in doing so re-telling the present, has become a popular branch of sci-fi and is now almost a genre in its right.
Robert Harris’ 1992 best seller Fatherland is an alternative history novel that imagines a past where the Allies lost World War II and Hitler’s dream of the Third Reich has become a terrifying reality. Starved into surrendering, Britain is now a German outpost along with most of Western Europe. Meanwhile, Poland and her eastern neighbours have been eaten up and consumed by a Nazi-run Germany. Switzerland, and its mountains (of gold), stands alone as a German-free zone.
Harris’ post-WWII world is mostly entirely believable. It’s a terrifying place – suffocating, frightening, devoid of good art, decent books and humour. Although while The Reich is a dark, dangerous world, the Germans haven’t been entirely de-humanised into frog-marching cardboard cut-outs. There are signs of rebellion as the heady 1960s creep in; even The Beatles have a little cameo (although would they have existed in a Nazi-run Britain? And would the 60s have swung quite so exuberantly – if at all – with a bunch of uniformed killjoys in power? Such are the perils of the alternative history novel).
Fatherland is as much about the small within this monolith to fascism, the story of one man’s fight for justice in a world that’s run by criminals. Xavier March is a detective in the Reich’s equivalent of CID. He’s a great detective, but not a good citizen, in fact he’s far too good a detective to let corruption win even if it means risking his own life.
The Empire is gearing up for the celebration of Hitler’s 75th birthday, an event that marks a national holiday and a great deal of marching and chest puffing. Five days before the official day, March is called to investigate dead body in a river just outside Berlin. As March delves deeper into a seemingly straightforward murder case, he learns that this apparently routine investigation has far deeper ramifications, his enquires taking him right to the very top of the government, revealing horrors that could pull the thread that will unravel the whole world.
Like all good cops in risky situations, March finds himself a sidekick, Claire Maguire – a pretty, young American journalist notchaknow – who is plucky and curious and offers much needed comfort in March’s difficult time. Their romance was an irritating, screamingly obvious and cliched addition (and why she had to be 25-years-old to March’s 42 is best left with Harris). But at least Maguire and her American brashness livened up a novel full of men in uniform (the only other women in the novel was a gargoyled receptionist and March’s ex-wife, who we never heard directly from).
The off-colour romance and the lack of female voices aside, Fatherland is a good read. Thrillers are usually so far removed from the kind of book I like as to render them invisible, despite the ubiquity of those embossed covers in grating serif fonts. I like books where nothing happens; I’ll usually take pages of someone buttering a piece of toast over chapters of breathless action. But having your foot in plaster for weeks means a great of (temporary) life changes. The proximity of a novel suddenly becomes the only criteria to read it and Fatherland, loaned to me a few months earlier, lay within an arm’s reach of my bed. Fatherland may not have converted me entirely to a new genre, but I will be more open to a thriller’s captivating arms.
A former journalist, Harris has a reporter’s skill of writing sharp, unfussy prose with enough colour to illuminate the world – in this instance, one we fortunately only ever to imagine. As all good thrillers should be, Fatherland gallops along, but, as all bad thrillers do, it doesn’t outrun itself. The plot doesn’t end up on a tangled web of confusion and dead ends; the conclusion is neat without being contrived.The even pace and realism is helped along by the quiet, considered March whose actions always seem believable even when he’s clearly doing something very stupid, his conviction in his task successfully putting pay to doubts of plausibility.
Fatherland is perfect sickbed, beach or airport read, which sounds like an insult, but isn’t meant to be. It’s pacey and gripping enough to block out the world and its annoyances. Even your fellow passengers, or your fractured foot, won’t quite seem so bad after taking a trip to a world where Germany won the war.
by Suzanne Elliot