You don’t expect to run into the sand with a Robert Harris novel
Munich review: Robert Harris fails to find the tension in Hitler’s rise
Neville Chamberlain, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hermann Göring at the Munich Conference in 1938. Photograph: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
You don’t expect to run into the sand with a Robert Harris novel. You start out with a certain level of expectation. It will be well-researched, entertaining. The popular novel in its journeyman place, doing what it is supposed to do. It’s a transaction and none the worse for it. A few hours suspension from the everyday is a bargain worth having. But the writer has to hold up his end of the deal and Munich isn’t close.
The background is Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. German troops are poised to invade. In London prime minister Neville Chamberlain tries to broker a compromise. He persuades Mussolini to use his influence and Hitler gives him 24 hours. In the shadow of the Munich conference, Hugh Legat, a young foreign office secretary, is contacted by a former Oxford pal, Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat and plotter against Hitler. Hartmann has documents that might derail the conference and provoke a German army uprising against Hitler if the documents can be got to Chamberlain in time.
Legat’s expectation of a glittering diplomatic career has faded. His wife is unfaithful. In John Le Carré’s world marital betrayal and the faithlessness of the husband’s trade echo darkly in each other. In Munich it is a device to bring depth to the two-dimensional Legat, discarded as soon as it has done its job. Hartmann’s characterisation is no better. He gathers with fellow plotters to plan an attempt on Hitler’s life. There is no tension in the room, no fear of betrayal, no sense that anything at stake. When Hartmann refuses to share the contents of the documents he has acquired, no one seems to mind. Hartmann has a lover. Her red silk kimono slips from her alabaster shoulders and then she is gone. Not even a cipher of desire.
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Three page tack-off
Harris is an enthusiast of the period and it shows. Detail is lingered over. The text of speeches is given in full. Chamberlain’s flight to Munich takes three pages to get off the ground. Typewriter brands and early BBC technical set-ups are dealt with in detail. Getting lost in a forgotten past is forgivable. There is beauty and validation in the detail of vintage Remingtons and flashing Lockheed Martins, but when it stops being texture, authenticity becomes baggage.
Legat has breakfast with the Chamberlains. Hartman finds himself on board the Führer’s special train. Legat is assigned a seat on board Chamberlain’s flight to Munich. Hitler borrows Hartmann’s watch. Documents go back and forth. Guns are stashed and recovered. Legat is impeded by jealous office types. A suspicious SS man takes an interest in Hartmann.
There’s a way of going about this kind of storytelling, an architecture of jeopardy, of plot devices, plants and hooks, ticking clocks and pay-offs. It is basic to the genre but there is no sign of it here.
The delegations close on Munich. The miscreants line up. Hitler and Göring. Mussolini and Ribbontrop. Chamberlain and French prime minister Daladier put on a brave face. The Czech delegation are locked in their hotel bedroom. But there is no sense that the world is on the brink. The players are lost to the background, the desire to re-create flags, menus, what the bands were playing, what the hotels look like. Only the Königsplatz with its Temples of Honour exudes real menace. Harris quotes FW Maitland at the start of the book. “We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.” But tracing the skull beneath the skin, the intuiting of darkness to come should be second nature to a writer.
Just another bully
Chamberlain is seen as a compassionate patrician, guilt-ridden because he was too old to go to the 1914 war, determined that another generation won’t be slaughtered in a war without meaning, but not above the odd gentlemanly sleight of hand. Bad prose is just bad prose, but bad history is false history. Harris presents the English and French delegations as “dowdy and outnumbered”, but there is a historical viewpoint that sees Chamberlain as another bully in a roomful of bullies, no matter if the others were wearing comic-opera uniforms. The Czechs probably had a view on this.
It is too easy to have a go. Taking a formula writer to task for failing the formula. But there is a wider point. The book’s cover is in Swastika red and black, the German imperial colours. The title is indented in gothic script. This is cynicism. You’re no longer reaching back into history for the symbols of a long-dead evil, you’re borrowing from a malice that has bestirred itself, and setting that malice to work. The writing and presentation has to be better than this when Lebensraum is no longer territory you expand into but territory you protect with razor wire and race libel. When Hartmann and Legat glimpse the searchlights of Dachau in the Bavarian night, it is unearned.
At the end you see the book that it might have been. There is a strange, barely developed subplot involving the mysterious death of Hitler’s 23-year-old niece that pays off in the ruined shell of a once-beautiful girl, the writing of it delicate, the implications terrible. And much too late the prose blazes to life in the famous image of Chamberlain emerging from a plane bearing the Munich agreement “ ... the jagged black figure at the centre of a great bright light, his arm stretched out like a man who had thrown himself on to an electrified fence”.
- Eoin McNamee is the author of the Blue Trilogy