Sunday, 19 May 2013

DAVID THOMAS' OSTLAND

Ostland is an ambitious and very powerful novel that reflects the ultimate incomprehensibility of the Holocaust. Beginning with the framework of a crime story, David Thomas has made a brave effort to face what was, at heart, the crime of the last century, and perhaps his book struggles in the same way and for the same reasons we all struggle.

The novel, which is based on the true story of Georg Hauser, the Berlin detective credited with hunting down the S-Bahn Killer, who eventually was prosecuted as a war criminal. The first act details Hauser's joining the murder squad for the investigation, and its success in finding a serial killer, one who turns out to be impressively mundane. In the second act, Hauser is assigned to the East, the Ostland of the book's title, where he is responsible for the implementation of the final solution to the Jewish problem. The third act, which actually interweaves the other two, involves Hauser's trial, 15 years after the war, 20 after the S-Bahn killer was apprehended, and follows Paula Siebert, the only woman on the investigating unit, and the one assigned to interview Hauser.

The first act sets the scene superbly—as Hauser is shown to be someone without any fanatical calling for the Nazi cause, but with a keen eye toward self-advancement. The very existence of the S-Bahn killer calls the whole German society into question, much as the very existence of the Rostov Ripper was denied in the Soviet Union, a point that was central to Child 44. Thomas creates a fascinating tightrope for Hauser to walk, as he (and his boss) know the killer is likely not a Jew, but must continue to play to the racial prejudices of their superiors, right up to Heydrich himself.

Of course, this turns into stunning shadowing as Hauser becomes immersed in the business of eliminating Jews, watching himself and his fellow civilised Germans turn into serial killers one and all. The story, like the first section, is told by Hauser himself, and where his career as a rookie detective on the country's biggest case is told with an almost na├»ve taste, the narrative of mass-murder contains not a little self-service, if not pity, alongside its rationalisation. Thomas has also captured the matter-of-fact approach adopted by Hauser to his , something that seems to have been commonplace in the post-war revelations, and which seems almost inevitable—as well even more chilling. The parallel between Hauser and the S-Bahn killer is brought out more fully in this similarity.

It also reflects the self-serving nature of Hauser's testimony as Siebert interviews him. He is a skilled interrogator himself, and to an extent he is playing with her, as much as he plays with the ambiguities he understands all too well from experience. When society makes crime part of its raison d'etre, who is the criminal? Hauser plays with other moral equivalencies—the firebombings of German towns by the RAF, for example, which chill us even as they give us pause. Thomas is doing what Hauser wants to do, make us consider how to mitigate the evil he did.

The novel slows down toward the end. We don't need to know what the actual document Siebert finds in the Soviet archives, that confirms Hauser's guilt, actually is; we have seen enough and we can inuit it from the rest of the story. But knowing it would give us a sense of satisfaction; we want to follow the courtroom more closely, and see justice done.

Similarly, Hauser's falling for a beautiful Jewess and saving her and her siblings might well be true, but it feels too melodramatic, not least in the way he tries to turn it into a virtue to balance against his other acts. And Siebert's ill-fated relationship with her boss, Kraus, seems almost pointless, except it gives Thomas a way to stage a final discussion in which Kraus tries to explain Hauser's behaviour, and that of countless other Germans, under the Nazis, while commenting on Germany's reluctance to punish him and others more harshly. This is the ultimate ambiguity, and it may explain why, in the end, Siebert sends Kraus back to his family, to his place in that society. She, like us, is disappointed not to get more closure, to use the modern term. And that is the final ambiguity, and truth, which Thomas stares down frankly and honestly. His book is perhaps less of a thriller as a result, but it is more chilling, colder and more nightmarish, as a result. One of Hauser's most self-serving statements, which he tells Hannah, the 'mischling' Jewess he saves, is none the less true. She accuses him of being the Devil, and he replies 'I'll tell you something about the Devil I didn't previously understand. He's in Hell, just as much as the people he torments.'

Ostland by David Thomas

Quercus £16.99 ISBN 9781780877365 

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

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