Munich, by Robert Harris

From the first page to the last, one reads this 2017 novel as if one is experiencing history. As if the reader is in each scene, watching and eavesdropping as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, along with their respective entourages, meet at Munich in 1938 in their brief and famous effort to avoid a new world war.

We are brought into the scene by two presumably fictional characters, Paul von Hartmann, a minor official in the German Foreign Office, and Hugh Legat, a rising British diplomat who is fluent in German and is a private secretary to Chamberlain. The two diplomats first met as students at Oxford University and have drifted away from each other, but now they meet again because Hartmann, part of an anti-Hitler movement in Germany, has sent a message to the British that he has a document verifying Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe. And so the British send Legat to Munich with Chamberlain with orders to contact Hartmann, for if the British can obtain those plans, they can expose Hitler before he can put them into action.

The novel consists of alternate meetings by each side as both the English and the Germans scheme over four days on the German threat to swallow parts of Czechoslovakia. These meetings will conclude with a joint statement and the famous Chamberlain declaration that his efforts had achieved “peace for our time.” What is remarkable is the suspense that Harris has created here, even when the actual outcome of the Munich meeting is so well known.

The first explanation for this suspense, I believe, is our fascination at learning, step by step, what really happened. We are there at both private meetings in which the German, English, Italian and French leaders meet with their entourages to discuss strategy and deal with their colleagues, and then at a public meeting as the two main leaders confront one another. Such details, along with a vivid description of the Munich environment, including ever-present German crowds in the street, reveal not only the author’s extensive research but also his ability to convert the dry findings of that research into the realistic details of his fictional world.

The second reason for suspense is our concern for the two fictional characters, Legat and Hartmann, given the impact they attempt to have on this historic confrontation. Both face obstacles from their own colleagues, first to being able to meet and, second, being able to join forces to convey Hitler’s specific plans to Chamberlain. In fact, one scene builds to a dramatic meeting with Chamberlain in which the two diplomats confront him. From history, the reader knows that the efforts of these two young men will prove ineffectual, but we read on to learn whether their effort to sabotage the Munich negotiations will be discovered and whether or how they will be punished.

History has judged the Munich mission a major failure based on false Allied hopes and German duplicity. A failure, especially, of Neville Chamberlain. But in this novel, Chamberlain is continually seen in a positive light. His views of Hitler are always forthright, never obsequious. Indeed, he is constantly cheered by German crowds during his public appearances in Munich, and then is later hailed by the English populace and the English press when he returns home. For he has saved both sides from the horrors of war by reluctantly accepting a limited German takeover of Czechslovkia. His rationale is that he has negotiated with Hitler in order to buy the time Britain needs to rebuild its depleted military.

Patrick Anderson sums up Harris’ approach to Chamberlain in his Washington Post review, writing that the novel “offers a painful look at an honorable man, longing for peace, but confronting an adversary who had only conquest in mind and only contempt for Chamberlain’s good intentions. …Chamberlain would be accused of appeasement,” Anderson continues, “but Harris sees a man haunted by hundreds of thousands of English deaths in World War I, barely 20 years earlier, and desperate to buy time.”

John Fund explains the author’s approach to this novel in National Review: “Harris has taken on a herculean task in trying to rehabilitate Chamberlain, and he makes a valiant attempt. In interviews promoting the book, he has said that his ‘slightly rebellious nature’ led him to challenge some sacred tablets about World War II. He said that when he was growing up in post-war Britain, it was rarely mentioned that four-fifths of the war occurred on the Eastern Front, that Stalin had killed far more people than Hitler, and that Britain had ten times the number of planes during the Battle of Britain that it had had at the time of Munich two years earlier. Harris said that these contradictions ‘have really infected my writing career ever since, starting with Fatherland.’”

Given Harris’ past success in recreating history, not only in Fatherland, which depicts a world in which Germany has won World War II, but also in his successful novels set in ancient Rome, one should not be surprised that his “rebellious nature” in evaluating traditional history also prompted him to offer a different take on Chamberlain’s strategy in Munich.

In another interview, author Harris told NPR: “You couldn’t get two figures in history more unalike; and yet, contrary to popular myth, I think it’s Chamberlain that got the better of Hitler at Munich. Hitler did not want to be there. He wanted to be at the head of his army advancing on Prague.” In fact, Harris says that Albert Speer in his memoirs wrote that “ at a dinner party it all came pouring out [of Hitler]. He said the German people have been duped, and by Chamberlain of all people. And even at the end of his life in 1945, Hitler was saying, ‘We should have gone to war in 1938, September 1938 would have been the perfect time.’”

Given the terrible state of the British supply of fighter aircraft in 1938, this certainly has the ring of truth. And the result is that we can thank Robert Harris for another successful novel offering a refreshing view of history. Indeed, I look forward to many more. (July, 2019)

To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

This is a marvelous novel from 2008. Nothing happens, yet the reader is fascinated. Because life is created, a family is created, and history lurks in the context.

This is the story of Ora, her husband Ilan, her lover Avram, and her grown sons Adam and Ofer. It is the story of their youth at one level, when as two young boys, best friends, they fall in love with the same girl. Both Avram and Ilan are in the army, whereupon a weekend pass is offered, but to only one, and they agree to have Ora draw the winner from a hat. She does, and draws Ilan’s name, whereupon Avram, left on duty, is sent into battle, becomes a prisoner, and is tortured.

Caring for the discharged Avram, whom they both love, Ora and Ilan are thrown together and conceive a baby they name Adam. But it is a difficult relationship, and Ilan leaves Ora, leading to her having an affair with Avram, which produces the other son, Ofer. However, Avram’s war experiences have turned him into a recluse, and he refuses any contact with Ofer, just as he has separated himself from all human contact following his torture.

And now, on the second level years later, Ora, has persuaded Avram to join her on a long hike. She is separated again from Ilan, and when her youngest, Ofer, is sent into battle instead of being discharged, she decides that she can assure his safety if she is not home to receive a message he has been wounded or killed. She also thinks if she talks to Avram about him she will make the boy come alive to his father, which will also keep him safe.

We learn all this background during Ora’s and Avram’s long hike that comprises the bulk of the novel. It is a fascinating concept, for nothing happens on the novel’s surface except their talk about her family and their own past. With the fascination coming from both the slow revelations that deepen for the reader the complex emotional relationships among the three, and the reader’s gradual ability to get to know each of these characters.

Meanwhile, Ora’s and Avram’s long discussions are grounded in the details of their hike down half the length of their country. With them, we encounter the changing weather, the rocky obstructions, the insects and animals, the rivers crossed and the mountains climbed, and the physical toll their journey takes. It is so detailed that this reader was convinced the author must have based such detail on an actual hike. And, indeed, he did. On his fiftieth birthday, as he was writing this novel, Grossman made a similar hike half the length of Israel—just to get those precise details. And it is through the details that he not only communicates the demands of such a hike but also conveys the military tension within Israel that the two lovers are also trying to forget through discussing their family history.

This is a memory novel, a novel that explores the meaning of love within the emotional complexities of life, a novel of talk instead of action and yet a novel in which the exploration of character is the substitute for action. Its story is driven by birth and death, by fear and hope, by openness and withdrawal, by the onset of love and the threat of violence, by both a female and a male perspective, by both external movement and introspection, and by time past and time present. But, above, all, it is a story about connections, especially between Ora and Avram. As Grossman has written: “What interests me most is the nuances of what goes on between two people, or between a person and himself.”

George Packer summed up this novel in the New Yorker: “Ora mainly talks and Avram listens, her words leading seamlessly to scenes from the past. Her story, which emerges slowly and out of chronological order, encompasses both the complex fullness of one life and the broader history of Israel’s modern conflicts.” He writes that this “is not an apolitical novel; it is antipolitical—a protest against history and its endless incursions” into private lives. In sum, he cites Ora’s “awareness of the randomness of life.”

Colm Toibin has equal praise for Grossman in The New York Times Book Review: “He weaves the essence of private life into the tapestry of history with deliberate and delicate skill; he has created a panorama of breathtaking emotional force, a masterpiece of pacing, of dedicated storytelling, with characters whose lives are etched with extraordinary…and unexpected detail…about the shapes and shadows that surround love and memory, and about the sharp and desperate edges of loss and fear.”

Toibin describes Ora, the main character of this novel, as “emotional, introspective, filled with…an ability to love.” Avram is her foil in literary terms and represents the love she seeks. He is, Toibin says “impulsive, brilliant…larger than life,” Ilan, whom Tobin describes as “rational, vulnerable…oddly needy and nerdy” has meanwhile left her and represents the absence of love, and perhaps its risks. While Adam and especially Ofer are there to receive the motherly love that sustains her. On another level, the hiking trail represents both the unity of this story and the diverse complexities that color the history of Israel.

The ending also merits discussion. Like history, like Israel’s fate, it is both inconclusive and elusive. And yet the reader understands it, even as Grossman deliberately does not reveal it. It is undoubtedly why even Israeli critics have called this an anti-war novel. For it has an ending the characters do not want, and the reader does not want, but it offers a reality that the author insists upon. That his entire novel insists upon. That mankind’s pursuit of happiness is subject to the whims of others—and to the whims of history.

Even the title reverberates with the novel’s theme. The end of the land suggests, indirectly, the possible end of Israel as a result of the wars her sons are fighting, as well as, more directly, the end of the hiking trail that will bring Ora back to her home—and perhaps to news of the death of her son. Which is the end that she fears most. It is a much more evocative title than the Hebrew version, whose literal translation is “Woman Flees Tidings.”

While I could not finish David Grossman’s first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, and did not fully appreciate See Under: Love, I did enjoy the simpler Someone to Run With. And now with this masterpiece, I am committed to reading more of Grossman. (February, 2018)