The Constant Soldier review: A good German takes on the Nazis
Declan Burke found William Ryan’s WWII novel both nuanced and gripping
William Ryan: His latest novel is a departure from his three previous Stalin-era mysteries. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/ The Irish Times
The Constant Soldier
William Ryan’s debut, The Holy Thief (2010), was the first of a series featuring Capt Alexei Korolev, a Moscow police detective in the 1930s. His subsequent novels, The Bloody Meadow (2011) and The Twelfth Department (2013), confirmed that Ryan was a crime-writing talent to watch, his unconventional police procedurals given a Kafkaesque twist as Korolev struggled to assimilate the genre’s notions of justice and truth into Stalin’s grotesque interpretation of same.
The Constant Soldier, then, is something of a departure for Ryan, a standalone novel set in an idyllic Silesian village in the autumn of 1944. This is territory once Polish but now German – although everyone knows, with the Russians advancing rapidly from the east, that it won’t be German much longer.
Paul Brandt, a Wehrmacht soldier, returns home a decorated hero from the Eastern Front, invalided out of the fighting after losing an arm, his face so burnt that his own father almost fails to recognise him at the train station.
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Paul’s family are outraged when he accepts a position as steward at a “rest hut” – in reality, a luxurious villa – serving the Nazi officers who work at a nearby “work camp”. But his apparently docile acceptance of the status quo masks a vague desire to sabotage his country’s war effort.
Paul, we learn, joined the army as the lesser of two evils: charged with subversive activities before the war, he is given the choice of the military or prison. When he learns that Judith, a fellow plotter, has spent the war doing slave labour, and now works at the rest hut, Paul acknowledges that he has “wrongs he had to put right”.
However, trapped between the implacable evil of the Nazis and the mercilessly irresistible force of the oncoming Russians, what can one man do?
There are comparisons to be drawn between the Korolev novels and The Constant Soldier. The most obvious is that both feature good men trying to do the right thing in a world where even basic notions of good and right have been perverted by the ideologies of megalomaniac dictators. But while the reader can be fairly sure that Korolev, as the protagonist of a series, will survive and thrive, Paul Brandt is a much more vulnerable character.
Essentially a self-appointed spy operating behind enemy lines, Paul has the wounds suffered on the battlefield in his favour (“behind his frozen face he could be anyone”). Yet he is operating at a time when suspicion is the very oxygen of a political system. As a result, and despite Ryan’s deceptively gentle pacing, the tale quickly becomes an emotional rollercoaster that sustains an increasingly tense mood of impending disaster.
Paul Brandt’s isn’t the only perspective we get. We also see the dog days of the war through the eyes of the idealistic Polya, a tank driver in the vanguard of the Russian advance, as well as those of Obersturmführer Neumann, the commandant of the “rest hut”. Neumann is a long-serving Nazi party member who secretly listens to the banned Jewish composer Mendelssohn and battles personal demons as he tries to maintain a semblance of order in the growing chaos.
The multiple perspectives lend themselves to a subtle and sympathetic portrayal of the characters and their conflict. As the shadow of nearby Auschwitz casts a long shadow across the story, Ryan is particularly acute in dealing with the subject of how ordinary people allowed themselves to engage in monstrous acts. “Mostly,” Neumann observes to himself, “no one had ever imagined it would come to this. Until it had, of course.”
For his part, and despite being the closet thing the novel gets to a conventional hero, Paul Brandt is as guilty of brutal depredations as any German veteran of the Eastern Front. “When everyone else is doing something,” he tells his despairing father, “you end up doing it too – without thinking about it. Sometimes terrible things.”
The Constant Soldier is a beguiling blend, a spy novel-cum-historical thriller that offers a gripping but nuanced narrative set against the horrors of the absolute abuse of absolute power. It’s a bleak but rewarding novel about guilt, personal and shared, and taking responsibility for your actions, even if doing so offers no possibility of reward. “What did it matter anyway?” Neumann asks. “Once you had killed even one innocent person, then the number becomes irrelevant . . . They were both of them guilty past the point of any form of redemption - on any scale.”
Declan Burke is an author, journalist and editor of the short story anthology Trouble Is Our Business (New Island), which will be published in September.