Robert Harris - Fatherland

Kindle book review

Robert Harris – Fatherland cover

'Fatherland' is one of those novels that every writer dreams of – the book that changes everything. Robert Harris went from BBC reporter to world-recognised author in one jump. The well-appointed house where he now lives was 'bought with the proceeds of Fatherland.’ It began a series of successes that took in 'Enigma', a trilogy set in Ancient Rome and culminated in last year's 'The Ghost'. This success is based on a fiction sub genre, what you might call the fact-based thriller.

However, the facts are disrupted by a significant pulse of the imagination. So, in 'The Ghost' a Tony Blair-like politician is writing his memoirs with the help of a ghost writer (as most celebrity memoirs are written, ironically with the exception of Tony Blair's). What would happen if the ghost writer was killed as part of a conspiracy to hide inconvenient truths about the recent past? In 'Enigma' (about the work at Bletchley Park to decode 2nd World War Nazi troop movement signals) what would happen if the events were viewed from the point of view of a fictional young Cambridge academic suffering from nervous exhaustion? And in 'Fatherland' (which concerns a series of murders in Nazi Germany) what would happen if the Nazis had not lost the War and the year was 1964?

This is a different way of writing compared with Stephen King's exhortation to the writer to start with a situation and see what happens (see 'On Writing'). Things must be worked out ahead of time to create more than a situation in Robert Harris' case - the starting point is a whole parallel universe.

And Robert Harris is good at acknowledging the factual basis of his stories right at the start. In 'Fatherland', he refers at the outset to Hitler's real plans to transform central Berlin with larger than life buildings, citing the original documents. And he develops the basis of the conspiracy underlying the dirty dealing that makes up the plot in real, knowable documents and events - particularly the Wannsee conference in 1942 at which the extermination of the Jews in Europe was planned in meticulous detail. Similarly, in 'Enigma' Robert Harris draws on the original decoded signals of the U-Boats held at the Public record Office in London. And in 'The Ghost', he refers to a real handbook on ghostwriting practice.

This could become a mechanical method but Robert Harris' other great merit is the ability to think his way inside the characters he has set into action in these changed circumstances. In 'Fatherland', the central character Xavier March, an investigator in the Kripo (the Nazi criminal police) who investigates the series of murders of high up Nazis that attended Wanasee, does not know about the atrocities that underlie the need for the cover up and struggles to gradually come to terms with the immensity of what that means. A central concern of the book is, then, how can he bring himself to think the unthinkable and realise that in a society that he supports and helps to maintain, people like him have been responsible for mass exterminations. This interior battle forms a strong theme of the book - how does the society that we live in contrive to deny us the truth and win our allegiance when it has carried out grievous acts? Indeed, this returns as a theme to 'The Ghost' with the events this time being the aftermath of the Iraq war.

The final great asset is Robert Harris' gift for describing locations with such ease and in such detail that you really can imagine yourself there. By reading 'The Ghost' you experience Martha's Vineyard in winter in much more detail than was conveyed in the movie version of the book.

While set firmly in thriller mode and offering great entertainment, Robert Harris has found a way of asking challenging questions that will mean, almost certainly, that his work will be of interest long after the current crop of blood-fests and vampire-ins has been forgotten.

Star rating: *****

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