The psychic scars of a death-camp survivor just won’t stop itching.
When we meet Paul Miller he’s a popular guy in a mountain village in a thinly disguised Germany. The 30-something architect has just been elected the town’s first postwar mayor, winning over the residents with, of all things, an espresso machine installed in the ancient hostelry where he works. What they don’t see is the rage and self-loathing percolating behind Paul’s friendly façade. He is in torment because this is the same village that housed the notorious labor camp where he was confined during the war. Every day the prisoners would march past the gaze-averting villagers to break rocks in the quarry while Paul designed a weapon silo, watched by the brutal commandant Hans. After their liberation, Paul was nursed back to health by the innkeeper’s daughter Alice, a simple, loving soul who will later marry him and give him a son. What she can’t give him is peace of mind, for Paul carries heavy baggage. When war broke out in his native Poland, his parents and Jewish fiancée were seized; the fiancée was later crucified on a church door. Paul was blameless but is crippled by guilt, made worse by his irrational misgiving that he failed his fellow prisoners. From this material Lebrecht could have spun a revenge yarn, with Paul tracking down the evil Hans, or a couch drama, with Paul spilling his guts to an analyst. Instead he gives us a bit of both, but not in a way that creates suspense. Hans is found hiding in plain sight. Should Paul kill him? He and his analyst wrestle with this, though Paul had already decided in the camp that murder was not an option. The climax is a messy, melodramatic compromise.
Lebrecht’s first novel (The Song of Names, 2004) was grounded by his deep knowledge of music, but here he is as unmoored as his hapless hero.