An avid young Hitler supporter discovers that his parents have been hiding a Jewish girl in their house.
Johannes Betzler is a child in Vienna when Hitler comes to power and Austria votes for annexation. In school, he learns that “our race, the purest, didn’t have enough land” but that “the Führer had trust in us, the children; we were his future.” Johannes joins the Jungvolk and, once he’s old enough, the Hitler Youth. At home, meanwhile, his parents grow more and more discomfited; they’re quietly opposed to the Nazi party but well aware of the danger they’d be in if they voiced their opposition—even to their own son. Then, as a teenager, Johannes is maimed by a bomb, losing a hand and part of his cheekbone. Wounded, he returns home, where for months he is bedridden, alone in the house with his mother and grandmother. Increasingly, his father is—mysteriously—gone. His mother seems to be acting oddly and, finally, Johannes discovers the reason why: There is a girl, a Jewish girl, hidden upstairs in a secret partition. This is where Leunens’ (Primordial Soup, 2002) novel takes off. Johannes becomes increasingly fixated upon Elsa. At first, her existence prompts him to question his devotion to Hitler—is he betraying the Führer by not reporting his parents?—but as time goes on, and as Johannes’ preoccupation with Elsa grows more sexual, these doubts fade. Leunens is a strong writer, her prose supple and darkly engaging. Her depiction of wartime Vienna is nearly cinematic and utterly convincing. But it isn’t clear if Johannes is meant to be a sympathetic character, and as the novel goes on, and his choices grow more and more disturbing, it becomes harder to sympathize with him. Nor does he change, exactly, over the course of the book, although his circumstances certainly do. Ultimately, it’s unclear what Leunens’ larger purpose is. This is a dark, disturbing novel—but to what end?
Vivid prose isn’t enough to lift this book from its own excruciating depths.