Sunday, July 29, 2007

The man who tried to kill Hitler

Before you start reading Justin Cartwright's latest, The Song Before It Is Sung, it may be beneficial to browse through the afterword. For it is here that you come to know that Cartwright's book is his version of the friendship between philosopher Isaiah Berlin and Adam von Trott, who was part of the unsuccessful plot of July 20, 1944 to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Von Trott was arrested, placed on trial and found guilty, as a result of which he was hanged to death in a Berlin prison.

The novel begins with one Conrad Senior flying from England to Berlin. Senior, a disciple of Oxford professor, Elya Mendel, has been left a cache of papers and letters relating to Axel von Gottberg. "It is true that you were not my most brilliant student, but I think, my dear boy, that you are the most human. You know that I took a position against Axel, and you know the reasons why, but perhaps you don’t know that many people blamed me in some way for his death. It has been a terrible burden to live with this," Elya writes Conrad, and we realize who plays who in Cartwright’s roman à clef. Conrad must discover soon enough that the inheritance comes with a tremendous responsibility.

The chink in the armor of Berlin and von Trott's friendship came in the form of a letter that the latter wrote to the Manchester Guardian in which he said that he had seen no anti-Jewish acts while working as a prosecutor in Kassel. Many believe the letter was an attempt to hide his anti-Nazi beliefs. But to Berlin, a Jew, the letter provided confirmation of what he had suspected von Trott of being all along: a Nazi sympathizer, given to grand ideals of aristocracy.

Cartwright weaves these incongruencies effectively. On March 5, 1939, Axel visits Elya at Oxford and the two discuss their antithetical views on dealing with Hitler. "Germans are not a flock of sheep. Everything has a cause. Germany felt trapped, humiliated until this lunatic offered them a way out. But there is another Germany, Elya, which only needs encouragement. You are going to sneer, but there is a decent, a noble Germany," says Axel. When he requests Elya to help him arrange a meeting with Michael Hamburger, the President's counsel and supreme court judge, Elya writes Hamburger:

"His friends at Oxford, and I am one, believe that he is at heart—I mean ideologically—a Nazi, although he is far too intelligent and complex a person to accept that as a simple fact. At best he is a German patriot of the old school, a fact that makes him antipathetic to Hitler, if not to all of the ideas behind Hitler."

Even as Mendel goes on to become an internationally renowned philosopher, von Gottberg, who could have easily found pride of place among the Nazi elite, gets enmeshed in a failed assassination attempt. Who was chasing what, one wonders. Was von Gottberg's supreme sacrifice a way of redeeming himself in Mendel's eyes? And if so, did Mendel set Senior on the trail of von Gottberg's life to atone for his sins of omission and commission?

In following the lives of two historical figures, there is always the danger of the present losing its way somewhat. What scope do the trappings of history leave Conrad Senior? That his three-year old research into von Gottberg’s life has turned into an obsession is apparent when in the beginning, he admits that “it is true that he thinks von Gottberg, at thirty-five, looks just like him”. Conrad’s marriage to the mercurial Francine is breaking down. She has decided to move in with her boss, a man “known and admired for his pioneering work on the incontinence in women caused by childbirth”. In fact, concedes Conrad, Francine is too much a scientist to be comfortable with the life of the mind.

In a story burdened with the weight of so much narrative, it is to Cartwright’s credit that he is able to successfully integrate another motif relating to Adam von Trott’s garroting. The executions of the July 20 conspirators were filmed on Hitler’s orders and Conrad must seek that film to complete the story of Axel von Gottberg. This is how he comes in contact with Fritsch, a Jew and an assistant cameraman at von Gottberg’s funeral, who has kept the secret buried with him for sixty years. He gives Conrad the reel of the execution and also a letter—a crushing, unbearable ode to love and friendship that von Gottberg wrote to Mendel moments before his death.

This is a deeply moving and well-researched work from a first-class writer.


From Washington Times


Eric Forbes said...

Wonderful review, Vikram!

Vikram Johri said...

Thanks, Eric!! You must read the book.

Eric Forbes said...

Cartwright's latest deserves to be longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Who else do you think deserves a longlisting?

Vikram Johri said...

The few great novels that I read this year have already made the list last year, such as Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me and James Robertson's The Testament of Gideon Mack. I agree with you on Cartwright. David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk is another book that deserves great recognition.