Posts tagged ‘war’

February 17, 2011

Book Review: The Witness House by Christiane Kohl

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THE WITNESS HOUSE
by Christiane Kohl

Other Press
(October 2010, $14.95, 272 pages)

What would happen if Hitler’s right hand men shacked up under the same roof as Holocaust victims? It’s actually a true story and is told in The Witness House, by Christiane Kohl.

The Witness House takes place during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, after the fall of the Third Reich. Accommodated in Novalisstrasse, a boarding house on the outskirts of Nuremberg, are witnesses for both the prosecution and the defence of the Nazi regime’s war crime trial. Mediating opposing viewpoints in Novalisstrasse is Countess Ingeborg Kálnoky, a local appointed by American liberation troops. At the Countess’s every beck and call is Elise Krülle, Novalisstrasse’s chambermaid and waitress.

It’s interesting to see the level of intellect Nazi devotees have in this story. For example, Rudolf Diels, the first to head the Gestapo, claims he was never a Hitler supporter. He perpetuates the guise by acting like a ladies man as he attempts to charm the Countess by kissing her hand, among other flirtatious moves, but Kálnoky knows that Diels is a dangerous man and is on “room arrest” for a reason.

Erwin Lahousen also projects an air of mystery. He was on the front line during the war, often close to Hitler, but he claims he was a member of the Resistance and that he came inches from murdering the head of the Nazi party.

The Witness House offers lively scenes begging for analysis. For instance, Countess Kálnoky acts as a middleman between Lahousen and Hoffman, Hitler’s personal photographer and close friend. Lahousen is in need of soap and razors, scarce items in post-war Germany, which Hoffman has stashed away. The Countess cons these items into her possession and then passes them on to Lahousen. You can only ask, when would this ever happen in the outside world?

Kohl’s research into wartime Germany and the Nuremberg trials offers moments of serious awakening. Gerhard Krülle, the chambermaid’s teenage son, grew up as a hypnotised Hitler youth. He tells of how, under the regime, he believed in the Fuhrer but was rudely awakened when National Socialism fell and his mentor was exposed as a war criminal. The propaganda young Germans faced is a viewpoint rarely exposed and it is worth reflecting upon.

Concentration camp life is also revealed. Stories of SS brothels run by Nazi soldiers sicken the reader and shed light on a part of the war we try not to think about. The most gruesome scene comes by way of French prisoner Maurice Lampe. He witnessed political prisoners “forced to keep carrying heavy blocks of stone up [. . .] steps. One after another, the men had collapsed, and soon the stairway was covered with blood and corpses.”

Aside from telltale violence, it is the absurd which gives you nightmares. Stories of “daily roll calls, often lasting for hours, when the prisoners were ordered ‘Caps off!’ or ‘Caps on!’ again and again”; in the Mauthausen camp, “a macabre execution scene that [. . .] had been accompanied by music from a gypsy band forced to play the melody of ‘J’attendrai’ (‘I will wait’)” raises your neck hair.

Down the line, getting all the way through The Witness House becomes an uphill struggle. For the first half, and a good chunk of the second, each chapter focuses on a new arrival at the house. The writing is vibrant, the characters animated, but you find yourself fidgeting in anticipation of when the exposé will cease, and hoping a climactic fever will finally overcome redundancy. However, you shake the blues near the end, when some of the most dark stories of Nazi Germany are revealed. At times you really are amazed at the similarity to fiction this true story has.

– review by John Coleman

December 14, 2010

Book Review: The Matter with Morris by David Bergen

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THE MATTER WITH MORRIS
by David Bergen

Harper Collins
(September 2010, CAN $29.99, 254 pages)

A link is drawn between Morris Schutt, fifty-one year old writer and main character of David Bergen’s Giller Prize-nominated novel The Matter With Morris, and Haggai, whom Bergen’s third person narrator tells us is “a less than minor prophet [. . .] who in the Bible gets two chapters.” The image of Haggai – a silenced prophet – is a lot like Morris. Once a syndicated columnist read by people worldwide, he loses his writing contract when his thoughts turn sour. Wouldn’t yours after your son dies at war?

Indeed, the matter with Morris and the Schutt family is the death of their son and brother Martin while serving in the Canadian army in Afghanistan. The fallen infantryman haunts this text; his absence tears apart a modern family along with their aging home. Solemnly, Morris and his wife, Lucille, part by way of a death they never expected. And Morris holds squalid relations with his daughters: Meredith, a working class mother with a grudge toward her selfish father, and Libby, a distant teen too smart to be trapped by adulthood’s hypocrisy. In a touchingly realist depiction of the new millennium as war era, the Schutts are today’s army family strewn by tragedy.

Living alone in a condo, Morris is patted down by moral anguish. Museless and desperate, he focuses on his life’s worst moment: a father-son huff, daring Martin to join the army. To boot, Martin was killed accidentally by one of his own men. For Morris, it’s just as well as pulling the trigger himself.

Mentally and spiritually unhealthy, Morris copes through self-destruction. Most pertinent of all, he is hooked on a woman’s touch and hires prostitutes to relieve his inner tension. There is also Ursula, an American reader of Morris’s column who, too, lost her son to war (in Iraq). Ursula and Morris become intimate pen pals, and eventually meet. Contemplating his choices in a hotel room as Ursula sleeps, Morris yearns for the solace he is searching for. Eventually, he does declare a breaking point. Things will change, he will get his family back, even if it takes some extreme measures.

Bergen admits in Morris’s afterword to borrowing ample inspiration from Cicero, Plato, Socrates and Bellows when creating Morris’s deep philosophical rhetoric. For some readers, his pondering of freedom, humanism and rabid individualism may seem pretentious, constantly lathered on without letting the last big question settle. However, I empathise with the abstractness needed to make sense of this character’s gall-filled world.

This empathy solidifies in many scenes that war parents and families can relish in. “[Morris] had heard of the Highway of Heroes near Toronto,” Bergen writes in sardonic prose, “he wondered how it was that he had come to live in a place where a fallen soldier was driven ignominiously past warehouses and big box stores.” Revenge is also offered through Morris’s habitual letter writing, one to the Prime Minister and another to the company who manufactured the gun that killed Martin. Morris notes the absurdity of sending a letter that will never be read, nodding at Bergen’s apostrophe technique and the simple closure the act offers.

Aside from lashing outward, Morris’s hurt drives hard toward nihilistic tendencies too. His son’s death causes him so much despair, loneliness, inadequacy, guilt, and scepticism, it’s no wonder he contemplates suicide more than once. His existential traits, borrowed from Kafka and Kierkegaard, lead him to declare solitude and to have feelings of despair and worthlessness. Don’t worry Morris, we hear your story, along with the 152 lonely Canadian fathers that live it every day. It’s the bleak story of modern global politics and its disastrous impact on the family. And, it’s something Bergen obviously wants us to consider.

John Coleman