A court proceeding in 1952 in South America deals with the long shadow of World War II.
In his debut historical novel, Bergengren gives readers two heroes, Michael Cohen and Johann Richter, and it takes over 400 pages before they can start to trust each other. The tale begins with Richter on trial (actually an extradition hearing) in La Negra, a fictional city high in the Andes. The hearing concerns the actions of the former German army officer during World War II, and even now, the British, the French, and the Israelis all want him. But what is he guilty of, if anything? Cohen, an American journalist, attends the hearing. He was caught in Germany before the war and lost his entire family in Dachau. Later, he would lose his great love, Rachel Stern, in the Israeli War of Independence. Richter saves his love, Elena Stein. (After Germany surrenders, they flee to South America and start a family.) Richter loathed Hitler and the Reich and was bent on assassinating him (after the infamous 1944 attempt failed) and curtailing the war. Years later, agents in MI6 are passing secrets to the Russians (remember Kim Philby and friends?), best represented here by the vile Anders Hardy, Richter’s long-time enemy. Things finally come to a boil in La Negra with MI6, the CIA, and Hardy’s rogues. The appropriate mayhem, set off by a kidnapping, ensues. All this may seem like a hopeless mishmash—many other characters appear in these pages—but Bergengren deftly pulls it off. The densely packed story, mixing the fictional with the historical, features effective pacing—the author takes his time—and solid prose. The flashbacks of Richter in the ’30s and ’40s (supposedly written later by the fictional Cohen), which neatly mesh with the main narrative, are often more gripping than the confrontations in 1952. And ironies abound. Richter is in fact a good German—his father was part of the 1944 plot—and he rescued a Jewish woman from a concentration camp. Cohen feels a “sense of connection” to the ex-officer (“As improbable as it seemed, his own life in some ways mirrored Richter’s”). The denouement ties things up nicely.
A satisfying tale about a German defendant and an American journalist; an impressive first novel.