1944. Paul Brandt, a soldier in the German army, returns wounded and ashamed from the bloody chaos of the Eastern front to find his village home much changed and existing in the dark shadow of an SS rest hut – a luxurious retreat for those who manage the concentration camps, run with the help of a small group of female prisoners who – against all odds – have so far survived the war. When, by chance, Brandt glimpses one of these prisoners, he realizes that he must find a way to access the hut. For inside is the woman to whom his fate has been tied since their arrest five years before, and now he must do all he can to protect her. But as the Russian offensive moves ever closer, the days of this rest hut and its SS inhabitants are numbered. And while hope – for Brandt and the female prisoners – grows tantalizingly close, the danger too is now greater than ever. And, in a forest to the east, a young female Soviet tank driver awaits her orders to advance . . .
Already established as a crime writer of some repute with the Captain Korolev series set in the shadow of Stalinist Russia, William Ryan has now produced a fiction novel with huge gravitas, The Constant Soldier. Using as a starting point, the photographs taken by Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the final camp commandant at Auschwitz, Richard Baer, depicting the “social life” of the SS officers who were responsible for the mass murder at Auschwitz, Ryan has constructed a novel that is not only unerringly poignant and harrowing, but one that will stay in your thoughts for some time after reading…
This is one of those of those books that somehow proves difficult to review, quite simply because the ham-fisted meanderings of an amateur reviewer can in no way do full justice to the essential emotional strength and intelligence of this novel. What struck me the most about the book was Ryan’s ability to load the most simple of images with such a powerful emotional resonance from the steam rising from a bowl of freshly cooked potatoes on a family table while a miasma of emotional turbulence plays out around it, to the simple naturalistic images of the serenity of the landscape surrounding the SS encampment, and the ever present shadow of the Auschwitz death camp within its radius. The horrific images of human cruelty that we know are being played out at some remove from us as readers, are made all the more tangible amongst this natural serenity. The claustrophobic intensity of the SS camp and the dark deeds that occur within also acts as a harsh counterpoint, with its pollution of moral decency and the subjugation of those outside the existing regime, particularly in relation to the treatment of the women prisoners. There is the overriding chill of evil permeating the book, but at times dispelled by Ryan’s main protagonist Paul Brandt, and the humanity that he has retained in a world where humanity is largely absent.
Brandt is a mesmerising character, physically and mentally wounded by his experiences within the Nazi regime, and now finding himself working in the dark, sadistic atmosphere of the SS encampment. Deeply affected by his war experience, he attains the role of the moral ‘everyman’ in the novel, working at the behest of those he despises, and charged with an emotional impetus to liberate one of the female prisoners, whose story is so closely entwined with his own. Through his eyes and experience, we consistently witness the sadism ingrained in the SS officers around him, but also the moments of weakness and fear they experience as the war grinds towards its end, and the impending arrival of Soviet troops. The balance that Ryan ingrains in Brandt’s character of certitude and doubt is exceptionally well-handled, and poses a larger question as to why men such as he would seek to endanger his own survival, and use his staunch moral imperative to help others. In tandem with such a compelling central protagonist, Ryan has also confidently created a strong surrounding cast of characters from Brandt’s taskmasters at the camp, to his touching interaction with the headstrong Agneta, and the righting of a wrong he believes he has committed using his relationship with her as a conduit for this. There is also an interesting co-existing narrative focussing on the approach of the Soviet forces seen through the eyes of Polya Kolanka, a young woman who co-operates one of the approaching Soviet tanks. This alternative viewpoint of the events of the war co-exists beautifully with the central narrative, and her tale is as equally grim as Brandt’s but serves to a larger purpose to reinforce the theme of the futility of war, and the harsh reality of those caught up within it.
As Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong has defined the First World War narrative, so The Constant Soldier achieves this for World War II, with its understated but hugely powerful emotional and moral examination of one of the darkest periods of world history. It is harrowing and emotionally charged, but I would defy any reader not to be utterly moved by the story that plays out before them, such is the intensity and deceptively simple brilliance of Ryan’s writing. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Mantle for the ARC)