David Downing has written a series of novels about an English journalist in Berlin during WW II. In Zoo Station, the first of the series, John Russell, is in Danzig when he’s approached by a Soviet NKVD agent offering him a lot of money for a series of articles that portrayed Naziism in a positive light. Russell is an Englishman, a former Communist, who fought in WW I, having married (now estranged) a German woman. His son, Paul, born in Germany, is a member of the Hitler Youth.
Russell suspects the Russians might be laying the groundwork for a future non-aggression pact. Then the Nazis approve, having their own motivation. Both sides want him to report whatever he might learn about the other side’s interests. So Russell is walking a tight-rope as the Russians demand more (no surprise), but Russell uses that for his own ends.
Some reviewers have complained there is no action and that the book is just a litany of Nazi evils with too much journal-like writing. I disagree. What Downing has done is to present the horrifying atmosphere and story of a people gradually being subjugated (often quite willingly) by a group of thugs. At what point are we willing to resist and what motives lead us to participate or push back. There’s the story of the mother who discovers her retarded daughter has been pegged for euthanasia by the state as part of their ethnic-cleansing and the father who reports his Down-Syndrome children precisely because he wants the child to disappear. The recurring theme is the failure of ordinary people to resist.
What makes this series (at least this first book that I’ve read in the series) interesting, as with Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books, is the sense of place, the paranoia and fear of living in a repressive regime, and the difficulties faced by relatively ordinary people during that time of crisis. I’m reading Traitor’s Gate by Michael Ridpath, which has similar themes.
I will be reading the other volumes.
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