By Vikas Datta
Aug 25 (IANS): Title: The Lady from Zagreb; Author: Philip Kerr; Publisher: Quercus; Pages: 452 ; Price:Rs.699
Nazi Germany was not, as commonly perceived, a monolithic, totalitarian state but rather a squabbling confederation of mutually suspicious, feuding leaders determined to safeguard and expand their own powers and only afraid of the Fuehrer. This climate of uncertain loyalties and fatal jealousies made life most difficult for their subordinates - even those drafted unwillingly to do their bidding, like this resourceful but cynical and wise-cracking ex-policeman.
In his tenth outing, Philip Kerr's irrepressible Bernie Gunther is summoned by no one less than the Third Reich's Truth and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (known by the irreverent Berliners as "Joey the Crip (ple)" due to his clubfoot and Mahatma Propagandhi for his job) on a mission. This is nothing new for Gunther, who has already (most unwillingly) worked for Reichmarshal Herman Goering, Reinhard 'Hangman' Heydrich, Heinrich 'Gestapo' Muller and so on.
But this mission is different - and one which will impinge Gunther in ways he cannot imagine. It appears simple - locating the father of an actress who is the rising star of German cinema and Goebbels himself is keen upon. But the missing man hails from Yugoslavia, which is so scarred by sectarian divides and killings that even Gunther, who thinks he is used to violence at its height or depravity at its lowest, is unnerved at what is going on there. He does find the missing man but the reality is unpalatable.
Returning back to Berlin and reporting to Goebbels, he is now tasked with going to neutral Switzerland where the actress is and tasked with cajoling her back to Germany. As usual, he is given a few other tasks and these prove to be more potentially lethal, while soon the worlds of both his commissions soon collide with devastating consequences for all concerned.
Nazi Germany's equally jaded and world weary equivalent of tarnished noir heroes like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, Gunther was however once an homicide detective in Berlin police, before drafted again into government service in the high tide of Nazi rule. He originally starred in three novels - "March Violets" (1989), set in the early years of Nazi rule, "The Pale Criminal" (1990) set in a time when its murderous contours were fairly evident, and "A German Requiem" (1991), set in Cold War Vienna where it refers to the shooting of Orson Welles' epic "The Third Man" and also replicates its plot. (The three were published together as "Berlin Noir", 1993)
Kerr, who has scores of other books as well as a popular children's series, resurrected him in "The One From the Other" (2006) and since then there has a fresh adventure every year or every second year, focussing on various parts of his life before, during and after the war, and not only in his homeland or other parts of Europe but also Peron's Argentina, Battista's Cuba (with the Castro revolt on), a Soviet POW camp and the like.
Adding a real feel of the gritty adventures are the cameos by various real personalities - apart from the Nazi bigwigs. In this book only, we run into Kurt Waldheim, latter to be UN secretary general and Austrian president, Allen Dulles, a latter CIA chief but then its predecessor OSS' chief in Switzerland and the notorious Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj-Amin Husseini, who even raised a formation of Bosnian Muslim volunteers for the SS (most of them balked at the work they were expected to do, mutinied and were shot or imprisoned!)
Gunther's foray into Yugoslavia also reveals why the multi-ethnic country witnessed some of the most unconscionable fighting and massacres ever seen in peaceful, civilised Europe even decades afterwards.
And for those allured by the sardonic, tough-talking hero with a rough sense of humour and honour, a new adventure is also due next year!