The old Luftwaffe headquarters dominates central Berlin, covering 100 thousand square meters with a concrete structure so large it was used by allied pilots during the war as a landmark for air raids. Appropriated by the post-war government, the campus looks like a cross between the New York Public Library and Sing Sing, a grim office block that functions as a perfect testament to the megalomania symptomatic of Nazi architecture (and thought). But the offices aren't just historical oddities. In addition to housing the current German Ministry of Finance, they also provide the unofficial blueprint for the granite columns and imposing facades scattered across the continent of Guy Saville's debut novel, The Afrika Reich.
Saville's invention of an Africa ruled by Nazi masters starts out with a visit to Burton Cole, our hero and mercenary, as he tries to live a quiet life removed from the nightmare of Dunkirk and the British government's conditional surrender. Convinced to come out of retirement, he's hired to assassinate a Nazi leader from his past growing up in Deutsch Kongo. After the attempt goes awry, Burton and his team hide, run, kill, and bleed–there's a lot of blood–their way across Africa, trying as they do to avoid the many soldiers, lackeys and fixers there to pick over the rotting corpse the continent has become.
The book, written at the pace of a conventional thriller, cares less about waxing philosophic on the nature of history and decision-making than it does setting up a believable context for its action. Saville's not so interested in the big questions of American identity or the prosecution of the Cold War as he is in what the SS in Africa logo would look like, or how the Nazi colonial administration would adapt to its new mission. This approach departs from the sweeping vision of historian-types to play to the author's journalistic sensibilities, allowing him to locate individual stories in the ceaseless churn of larger historical movements.
It also allows him to bring his career as a freelance foreign correspondent to bear, using his more than passing familiarity with violence and brutality to imbue the novel's scrappy aggression with a fleshy reality. Working in South America and Africa for The Independent, Telegraph and Observer, Saville spent his time as a correspondent covering a violent beat, filing reports on political unrest in Ecuador, animal trafficking in the Amazon, and the aftermath of 9/11 in the Middle East. His experiences studying gang violence in Rio have appeared in an anthology published by Yale University Press, adding an academic stamp of approval to his in-country credentials. When it comes to human beings oppressing or fighting one another, you should probably just take his word for it.
A recurring theme in the book is that the protagonist, Burton Cole, grew up a cultural Creole, learning arithmetic from his parents and dambe–African street-fighting–from the troubled youths at his family's orphanage. This seems the kind of detail added for literary kudos, but the depiction of children fighting is actually right in the author's wheelhouse.
"When I was a correspondent in Rio," Saville says, "'fight clubs' became really popular, so you had a bunch of these nightclubs hiring boys from local favelas to fight each other for the amusement of the club's patrons. It was pretty gruesome."
Saville might be a victim of his own experience in writing Nazi characters so utterly convincing in their brutality they can make sections of the book difficult to read. Beyond the usual litany of stabs, shots, punches and kicks, there's also gang rape, torture, infanticide, burning at the stake and even one lucky character getting drowned in a literal river of shit. Some particularly twisted ideas (including one character’s ambition to “Aryanize” the soil of Africa) even have basis in local myth.
“Hochburg ‘aryanizing’ the soil of Africa actually has its basis in African legends about warriors and the strength of enemy corpses for various uses,” Saville reveals. “There even used to be rumors that Mobutu, the long-serving president of Zaire, would use dead bodies in weird ways because he believed it gave him power.”
Considering that The Afrika Reich is the first in a planned trilogy examining the effects of Nazi rule on white colonists, Jews “resettled” to Madagascar, and the native population (which prior to the events of the first novel have been forcibly relocated to the Sahara), things will probably only get more violent as the series goes on.
It's clichéd advice: write what you know. It's also advice that those with weak constitutions should hope Saville doesn't take. What Guy Saville knows is violence: violence against animals, children, and those seeking change through the political process. He's spent a career facing it on the journalistic front lines and–admirably–raising public awareness against it, and now he's combined it with heavy research to breathe life into history's greatest villains.
Joe Marshall is a freelance writer and author of the book I Haven't Actually Written a Book: 100 Tips for Lying in Website Promos. The product of a good public education, he has trouble with the finer sort of encyclopedia.
Photo above of Guy Saville by Ben Anker.