From author Mayer (Life in a Jar, 2011) comes a historical novel based on the life of Ernst Techow.
In June 1922, the foreign minister of Germany, Walther Rathenau, is killed by conspirators, one of whom is young Ernst. Murdered in his car by machine gun fire and a grenade, Rathenau is mourned by many, though right-wing and anti-Semitic groups—the kind that will seize power in the years to come—applaud his death. Convicted as “as an aide to murder” and sentenced to 15 years in prison, Ernst isn’t nearly as troubled by his crime as by his time previously spent in the Free Corps “in the company of the hardest of men” who wouldn’t think twice about shooting a student or communist. In prison, he shares a cell with a philosophical man nicknamed Puck (after “Shakespeare’s fairy”), and the two eventually form a bond. Only after Puck introduces Ernst to the profitable world of forgery does Puck admit a most dangerous secret—this man Ernst has come to know and trust is, in fact, Jewish. How can Ernst reconcile his past beliefs with this newfound reality? What does this mean for Ernst’s life after prison with the Third Reich on the rise? Exploring Ernst’s life both before and after his help in the assassination of Rathenau, the historical novel is at its best when describing the unstable days of the German Revolution. Swept up in his duties as a soldier, Ernst nevertheless has feelings of his own: “Events were spinning out of control and Ernst could only hold fast to the purpose he was entrusted with, its burden and responsibility.” Ernst’s relationship with Puck can feel forced at times: Puck goes so far as to quote Hillel, and he even persuades Ernst to read Rathenau’s writings, from which “Ernst began to construct a very different picture of the man he had helped assassinate.” For the most part, though, Ernst’s portrayal as a multifaceted, sometimes violent man is a believable one.
Occasionally verges on the melodramatic, but nevertheless an insightful portrait of a complex man and period in history.