Civilization’s survival in a climate of devastation is the theme of the British (now French resident) author’s sixth novel.
It essentially resembles such ambitious predecessors as Ulverton (1992), Pieces of Light (2000) and No Telling (2003), in which the impingement of the present upon the past virtually imprisons, as it illuminates, his characters. Thorpe tells the stories of two men brought together (though they never meet) during the final days of the Second World War. One is Corporal Neal Parry, leader of the U.S. Army patrol that enters the ruins of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Museum (destroyed by artillery fire) in the German village of Lohenfelde, where he finds the charred corpses of museum staff members, and an undamaged copy of an 18th-century oil painting, titled Landscape in Ruins. Parry removes the painting from its frame and stores it for safekeeping, hoping it may aid his hopeful climb from a career as a commercial artist to more “serious” achievement. Juxtaposed with Parry’s (rather thinly developed) story are those of the museum’s dead: bereaved secretary Frau Schenkel, a stoical good German citizen; effusive Nazi-admiring student researcher Hilde Winkel; mercurial archivist Werner Oberst (whose reverence for Martin Luther raises the issue of the great theologian’s perverse admixture of intrepid humanism and Hitler-like willfulness)—and, most prominently, acting director Heinrich Hoffer, devoted paterfamilias and art lover, whose sinecure had nevertheless been purchased by bribing SS officials. Thorpe’s searching portrayal of Herr Hoffer’s complex heart and mind blends impressively with the novel’s central tension: Between the technique of perspective that shapes the chaos of experience to manageable scale, and the sprawling energy of conquest, exploitation and rapine incarnated in the Nazis’ traducement of Germany’s proud culture.
Thorpe’s exploration of these polarities occasionally feels manipulative. But his novel’s conceptual power and insistent celebration of art’s power to endure make it a moving and rewarding reading experience.