“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Review: THE CONSTANT SOLDIER by William Ryan
The Constant Soldier (Mantle), then, is something of a departure for Ryan. A standalone novel, it’s set in an idyllic Silesian village in the autumn of 1944, a territory once Polish but now German – although everyone knows, with the Russian Army advancing rapidly from the East, that it won’t be German for much longer. Paul Brandt, a Wehrmacht soldier, returns home a decorated hero from the Eastern Front, invalided out of the fighting after losing an arm, his face so burnt his own father almost fails to recognise him when he collects him at the train station. His family are outraged when Paul accepts a position as steward at a ‘rest hut’ – in reality a luxurious villa – serving the Nazi officers who work at the nearby ‘work camp’, but Paul’s apparently docile acceptance of the status quo masks a vague desire to sabotage the German war effort.
Paul, we learn, joined the Wehrmacht as the lesser of two evils when, charged with subversive activities before the war, he was offered the choice of the army or prison. When he realises that Judith, a fellow plotter, has spent the war in slave labour, and now works at the rest hut, Paul acknowledges that he has ‘wrongs he had to put right.’ But trapped as he is between the implacable evil of Nazi Germany and the mercilessly irresistible force of the oncoming Russians, what can one man do?
There are comparisons to be drawn between William Ryan’s Captain Korolev novels and The Constant Soldier, the most obvious being that both feature good men trying to do the right thing in a world where even basic notions such as ‘good’ and ‘right’ have been perverted by the ideologies of megalomaniac dictators. But while the reader can be fairly sure that Korolev, as the protagonist of a series, will survive and thrive, Paul Brandt is a much more vulnerable character. Essentially a self-appointed spy operating behind enemy lines, Brandt has the wounds suffered on the battlefield in his favour – ‘behind his frozen face he could be anyone’ – and yet he is operating at a time when suspicion is the very oxygen of a political system. As a result, and despite Ryan’s deceptively gentle pacing, the tale quickly becomes an emotional rollercoaster that sustains an increasingly tense mood of impending disaster throughout.
Paul Brandt’s isn’t the only perspective we get in The Constant Soldier, however. We also see the dog days of the war through the eyes of the idealistic Polya, a tank driver in the vanguard of the Russian advance; and those of Obersturmführer Neumann, the commandant of the ‘rest hut’, a long-serving Party member who secretly listens to the banned Jewish composer Mendelssohn and battles personal demons as he tries to maintain a semblance of order in the growing chaos. The multiple perspectives lend themselves to a subtle and sympathetic portrayal of the characters and their conflict, and with the shadow of nearby Auschwitz casting a long shadow across the story, Ryan is particularly acute when he deals with the subject of how ordinary people allowed themselves to engage in monstrous acts. “Mostly,” Neumann observes to himself, “no one had ever imagined it would come to this. Until it had, of course.” For his part, and despite being the closet thing the novel gets to a conventional hero, Paul Brandt is as guilty of brutal depredations as any German veteran of the Eastern Front. “When everyone else is doing something,” he tells his despairing father, “you end up doing it too – without thinking about it. Sometimes terrible things.”
The Constant Soldier is a beguiling blend, a spy novel-cum-historical thriller that offers a gripping but nuanced narrative set against the horrors of the absolute abuse of absolute power. It’s a bleak but rewarding novel about guilt, personal and shared, and taking responsibility for your actions, even if doing so offers no possibility of reward. “What did it matter anyway?” Neumann asks. “Once you had killed even one innocent person, then the number becomes irrelevant … They were both of them guilty past the point of any form of redemption – on any scale.” ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Times.