I obtained a hardback copy of this novel through a giveaway and thank Ash (@FTLOBOOKS) for her kindness and for the opportunity. I freely chose to review it.
Robert Harris is a familiar name for most readers and moviegoers. His novels and popular and many have been adapted to the screen (I particularly enjoyed The Ghost as I have a soft spot for films about writers). But although I have watched several adaptations of his novels, I cannot recall having read one of them, and I was happy to be given this opportunity. After reading it, I understand why he is so popular, and I don’t think this will be the last one of his novels I read.
Until I started to read the novel and later read some of the reviews, I did not know much about the historical background to it. The novel is classed as historical fiction and deals with the Munich Conference, that took place in September 1938, in a last ditch attempt at avoiding war with Germany (and Italy). The novel takes place in 4 days, from the 27th of September 1938 onwards, and covers the meeting between Hitler (for Germany), Mussolini (for Italy), Daladier (for France), and Chamberlain (for England), to try and settle Hitler’s demands for a return of the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia (mostly inhabited by German speakers and people of German origin) to German hands. The actual agreement was signed on the 30th, without the presence of the Czechs, who worried the return to Germany of that region would leave them weakened and unable to defend themselves against further German expansion. Harris sticks to the facts, and the novel is divided into four parts, one for each day of the conference, with the historical figures who were present represented fairly accurately, and the events following the correct chronology as well.
What makes it historical fiction is the fact that he introduces into the story two characters who did not exist in reality, and Englishman, Hugh Legat (one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries) and a German, Paul Hartmann (a German diplomat and member of the anti-Hitler resistance). They had met in Oxford and had also spent some time together in Germany, but had not seen each other in 6 year and had a bit of history, which we learn more about throughout the book. Whilst Legat is a family man and seems to be focused on his career and on doing things by the book, Hartmann is a bit more mysterious and has the heart of a spy. He is not averse to taking risks, has no family, is much more clued on what is at stake, and is seemingly more reckless as to putting others at risk. Of the two characters, perhaps Legat is the one we get to know better and the more recognisable and sympathetic type, whilst Hartmann shares less of his personal life. He is the one calling the shots but we get fewer glimpses of his true motivation and he seems to have less to lose, and that might make him more difficult to identify with but more interesting and intriguing. Both men are highly intelligent and sharp analysts, ideal candidates to become observers and stand-ins for the readers.
The book is written in the third person (extremely well) and alternates the point of view of both characters always making clear who we are reading about. Harris has a way of making characters and events that might feel familiar sound and look intriguing (something extremely difficult when there are so many players involved) and uses descriptions to great effect. As we follow these two characters, who are both insiders of this world of diplomacy and politics but not big influencers and therefore very restricted in what they can do without risking their own lives and those of others, we share with them the wonderment, the worry, and the awe at being in the presence of such important people and at such a momentous event. We also share their frustration at being unable to intervene and change the course of history (and that would have made an interesting speculative historical fiction novel, for sure) that in our case we know will end up in tragedy.
The pace of the novel is uneven. Due to how closely Harris follows the events, there are moments when the leaders are travelling, paperwork is being prepared, or when due to their roles, both characters and not in the thick of things, and although the novel is never boring (because of the great characterisation and the level of detail), it is not a page turner where the rhythm is frenzied and never lets off. There are tense moments at the beginning, then there are the actual meetings between the leaders, which are not witnessed by the two men, and then things pick up again. The secret documents being exchanged, the difficulty in arranging meetings or even exchanging a few words in such circumstances become increasingly clear as the conference comes close to an end, and both men become bolder and take bigger risks. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic (though realistic) but I don’t want to reveal too much.
I am not an expert in this historical period, but I did feel that I got a better insight into the events and also the historical protagonists of the Munich conference thanks to the novel. Reading some of the comments, it seems that many feel Harris has managed to make Chamberlain’s position and manoeuvres more understandable and agreeable, rather than adhering to the popular view that he was too weak and did not handle the negotiation well. Harris explains that after working on a documentary about the subject many years back, he had remained fascinated by this historical event and felt he had to write this book. (He also includes a lengthy bibliography acknowledging the sources he has used to write the book, which will be of great help to anybody looking for further information).
Here some examples of Harris’s writing in this novel:
Legat took out a large white cotton handkerchief and wiped his face. It would not do to turn up red-faced and perspiring. If there was one sin that was frowned upon above all others in the Private Office, it was appearing to be in a flap. (Harris, 2017, p. 10)
…because people believed what they wanted to believe — that was Goebbel’s great insight. They no longer had a need to bother themselves with inconvenient truths. He had given them an excuse not to think. (Harris, 2017, p. 139)
There is a very memorable scene, when shortly after the English delegation arrives at their hotel in Munich, they are regaled by an oom-pah band playing in the street, in front of the hotel, The Lambeth Walk. Legat, very aptly, describes it as “surreal” (p. 212).
One of the moments that I thought better defined and explained Hartmann and his actions (because he had always been a firm believer in Germany and its nationhood and that had caused some friction with Legat in the past) was when he talks about Hitler and how they had ignored “the power of unreason” (p. 297), that he goes on to explain, saying that people kept making excuses for Hitler’s most extreme and bizarre behaviours (his antisemitism, his ethnic policies…), telling themselves that these were one offs that could be overlooked or ignored, whilst he now believed the most evil and the most extreme ideas and behaviours someone is capable of are what truly define him or her as a person.
I think this book works well as historical fiction and I’d recommend it to people who want to learn more about this particular historical episode without having to read several historical volumes. On the other hand, this is not a thriller or a standard spy novel, and although there are intriguing and mysterious aspects that quicken the pace, Harris sticks so closely to the actual events that he does not introduce major changes or surprises, even when it comes to his fictional characters. A solid and well-written historical fiction book and one that has convinced me I must read more of Robert Harris’s work.
Harris, R. (2017) Munich. London, UK: Hutchinson, Penguin Random House UK.