Sunday, February 08, 2009

Book Review: 'Germania' gets the history right, but misses on the made-up stuff

Sunday, February 8, 2009

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

For three weeks following the death of Adolf Hitler, Allied-occupied Germany was left under political control of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the Nazi navy.

Dubbed the Flensburg Reich, for the northern German city where the administration was located, the short-lived government sought at first to persuade the Allies to team with the Germans to repel marauding Russians, and then, once evidence of the Holocaust became widespread, to show mercy.

Dallasite Brendan McNally uses this overlooked but fascinating episode of history as the basis for his debut novel, Germania – much of it written at the Starbucks on Lower Greenville. Germania is the name Hitler gave to the capital of his dreamt-of 1,000-year empire, a place of "salmon skies and buildings, of civic spaces, and a city that would be a thousand years of glory, a light upon nations."

Those words are spoken in the novel by Nazi architect Albert Speer. He, along with SS chief Heinrich Himmler, are the two key characters in the book. It shifts between the two men, first Speer as he tries to save what remains of German industry and Himmler as he dreams of becoming "King of Europe" while trying to negotiate a separate peace with Eisenhower, and later as they plot their escapes.

All the while the fates of the two men are caught up with those of an invented quartet of Jewish vaudeville performers called The Flying Magical Loerber Brothers. We meet them – Ziggy, Franzi, Manni and Sebastian – as the novel opens, performing acrobatic and magic tricks on a pre-war stage (and off-stage, killing Nazis), and again later, as each has a role to play in history: Manni as an assassin who cozies up to Speer, Ziggy as a Nazi U-boat captain loyal to Dönitz and the Navy, Sebastian as an operative with The Blood of Israel, and Franzi, a gay double-agent, working with both the Russians and the British, who becomes Himmler's masseuse and spiritual adviser.

Each Loerber Brother is also endowed with a psionic ability – Manni has the ability of mind control, Sebastian controls people's dreams, Ziggy is a telepath – which have, presumably, helped them survive as Jews in plain sight.

Unfortunately, this marriage of history and magic realism is awkward at best. McNally gets the history part right – the plot and characters as drawn from the record are, for the most part, wholly convincing – it's the made-up stuff that proves problematic. The brothers are too indistinct as individuals, particularly in scenes where more than one are present; the Nazis are the strongest presence, and history itself has already given us more than enough of these men.

Germania has antecedents in literature, most notably Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum and Michel Tournier's 1970 novel The Ogre, both of which offer magic realist takes on the Third Reich. But these are complex novels where moral ambiguity is threaded through the narrative, provocative enough to be polarizing.

McNally's novel isn't as lofty – Germania is intended more as entertainment than a philosophical or psychological study – and this is the problem. The topic with which he's dealing – the German Jews' relationship to the Holocaust and Nazis – may simply be far too real to ever be rendered as fanciful.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.


Brendan McNally

(Simon & Schuster, $26)

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