Lying with the Enemy
(This column was first published in the April 12, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
We are spoiled in our reading today by white space. Our attention spans attenuated by massive attacks of twenty second TV newsbreaks, USA Today-style writing and novels made up entirely of barely literate conversation, we can only handle ten word sentences and two or three sentence paragraphs. Gone are those stately sentences and masterful paragraphs of the Victorians.
Well, almost. Thank goodness for Tim Binding who is able to construct a two or three page (not line!) paragraph, perfectly organized and carrying you along with its stately flow. Reading Tim Binding is to me much like reading poetry.
His third novel, Lying with the Enemy (Caroll & Graf, 1998), is also a well-told story. It is about the small English Channel island of Guernsey during World War II. Taken over by the Germans after Dunkirk, the island is supposed to show the world what a benevolent occupation is like. To some it is simply an isolated, boring place:
"Guernsey was small-minded. The forty thousand souls living alongside them had similar visions. Their horizons stretched no further than the rock on which they stood, a self-satisfied triangle, six by seven by nine, an immovable wedge of granite, stuck fast and impervious to change. Where was the glitter, the intrigue, where were the stakes to be played, the bolts from the blue? It was all so dull! The clubs with their empty protocol and pointless committees, the endless cocktail circuit, the spring and winter balls, all, in their proud pomposity, heartbreaking reminders of the glittering society she had left behind."
But of course there are serious problems beneath this bland surface. And there is a metaphor for the islanders' bad behavior, their fraternization and smuggling. Working mostly below ground building fortifications are prisoners from eastern Europe. Here is one of them thinking about his capture, the only obscene word in the entire book fitting perfectly here:
"It was what happened, what the world was made for. All the rest was a delusion. He had seen it before. Seen it with his sister that night.... The officer in charge, a tall, handsome man with not a speck on his uniform, had come round to their cottage that afternoon and ducking through the low doorway, had stepped in, dusting off his cap with determined politeness. There was just him and his father and sister left. Their mother and the baby had been taken into the church, along with Grandmama and all the others. The officer had looked around the room with interest, the only room they had, and picking up a sample of Sonya's embroidery work had held it out, questioning her with a friendly look. His sister had nodded and, smiling, the officer had replaced it back on the dresser with care. Then, noticing his parents' bed hidden at the back, he had gone over, drawn back the curtain and patted the snug, high mattress.
"'Good,' he said to his father. 'Tell your daughter to keep it nice and warm. This is where we're all going to fuck her tonight.'
"His father had wanted to end it for them that afternoon, but there was no gun for him to do it quickly, to shoot them both and then turn it on himself, just the gutting knife and the rolling pin and Grandmama's walking stick she used to whack his legs with, and he couldn't bring himself to use any of those. So they sat, the three of them, praying and singing soft songs of their homeland, hoping that the soldiers might go away or forget. When the time had come and the officer had put his head round the corner, tapping at the watch he held in his hand, his father, weeping, had shaken his head, imploring him, pointing to her youth and the trust she had placed in his ability to protect her.
"'Do not worry,' the officer had told him, 'I understand,' and slipping the watch back into his pocket, had taken him out and shot him underneath their broken window. The soldiers had to step over his outstretched arms to come through the door. They had come through the door all night."
And around them there is a war going on. The German officers are always threatened by the possibility of transfer to the Russian front:
"There had been many ways to die in Fortress Stalingrad. The road to the airport had been only ten feet across at the beginning -- a five-mile stretch from the circular railways to the last airfield and escape. By the end it was over one hundred feet wide, pressed thick and deep with the frozen bodies of fallen men. By day they had shuffled and crawled along, the bleeding and dying, hoping to climb their way onto one of the lone crazy Junkers that skidded in and out of their icy trap, but at night, when the planes had stopped and the road was jammed with broken trucks and smashed guns and the wrecks of planes that had not made it, they lay down and were covered by the ceaseless fall of snow. The following morning a fresh column would begin anew, walking on the far side of the newly dead, while trucks reared and slithered over those newly frozen forms, splintering their bones like glass. There was no need to feel guilt, these desperate men, seeing their comrades pressed into such ignoble service. They would be lying alongside them soon enough. And so the track ever widened. Fourteen thousand alone had died on that road. And then the airport was overrun, and they retreated into an even more desolate landscape of burnt-out villages and wrecked cellars, falling back room by room, house by house, street by street, compressed ever tighter. From the air it appeared as if a giant furnace was at work, liquid metal arcing in molten shapes of chemistry, steel shafts stabbing at the burning earth, a man-made volcano for the modern age, but inside there was only the cold and the biting wind and the limitless white of the snow. Now there was no escape, except through death and that would not be easy, He had made sure of that. Lentsch had heard of whole companies of men lying atop ice-filled trenches, too frozen to move as the tanks rolled slowly over them, their blood and organs squirting out like freshly popped fruit; of packs of dogs ignoring the stiffening corpses and seeking out only the living, to nuzzle hungrily into their open wounds. There was no war now, just ways to die: death by gangrene, death by spotted fever, death by starvation, death for the common soldier, death for the conscript, death for the general, death which left unsatisfied, sullen and without pity, to attend to the next broken soul."
I know nothing of Binding's background except that he lives in England where this book was first published. But English though he may be, he treats one German officer with generosity. He is one of the two heroes of the story. Here is Major Lentsch thinking about the proposed visit of Hitler to the island. Read this remarkably long paragraph for the thoughts of this representative of the old German officer class:
"It would be a triumph, no doubt, for Him to step on British soil, a trophy to take back to the defeated battlefields of the other Europe. Medals would be struck. Those who escorted Him, served Him His meal of vegetables and rice, shook His hand, would be marked forever. It was a rare event now, those hallowed meetings of master and men. Gone were the field lunches, the open-air car tours, the platform behind His train. Gone were the walks along mountain paths, the incidental meetings, the clasp of man and country. Gone too those hesitant, shape-searching speeches that had thrilled them all. He shivered now, not at the cold current pulling him out, but at the memory of that first one he had heard, to the Hitler Youth, the bare-kneed boys, thousands of them, washed and scrubbed, standing up on tiptoe or on one another's shoulders, jostling and jumping to see Him coming. He'd been given a ticket from his fiance's father and had stood high up at the back. He could remember every word, every gesture. 'We want no class divisions,' He had intoned. 'You must not let this grow up amongst you.' His voice had faltered with that admonition, broken on the wheel of that profound longing, the crowd hanging in silence on the trembling space between His words. Lentsch had felt a gnawing pang of envy stir within him. What adult did not want to be a youth then, to grow up under such tutelage? How the boys roared when He stepped back. Is that what He had promised? Eternal youth, eternal pubescent strength, harnessed to an elementary world of work and play with no other reward except the nation's brimming health. Was that what had driven them into His embrace, the blind belief that the world could be that simple? He remembered that time, the only time he had come close to Him. It had been early on, in '33, or '34. He was on leave, back home, drinking as it happened on a Sunday afternoon with some fellows at the inn. He had joined the army only recently, his father's regiment, and though happy with his choice it had not been an easy decision. There were other things that life had called for him. It was hard to say, but he had thought to study ornithology, and had spent years learning natural history, first at home and then in Edinburgh, where to the amusement of his landlady and fellow students he had learnt to dance the reel. He had made friends there, some whose fathers owned estates such as his own, who shot and rode as he did, felt the call of heritage and duty as he did, and others who felt another calling, a life of work rather than duty, and though he was susceptible to that too, the call of his country had come winging back. Yes, it had been a long time coming that call, like the slow flap of the geese rising out of the damp swamp, but when it came it was as if the sun had risen and cleared the mist and all one could see was a country of great beauty and power, worked by a great people. In those days, journeying to Munich or Berlin, the new leader would try and cross the country unseen, his chauffeur, his aide, his photographer and a small following staff car his sole companions, but though He might fool the first town or village, word of His coming spread ahead like a forest fire. Lentsch was sitting outside when the news had come through, phoned to the burgher by his opposite number twenty kilometres up the road. There was no time to prepare, just a handful of hasty flowers plucked from front gardens, flags unfurled and pushed out of top windows. By the time the car turned the bend the whole village was out, men with the smudge of work on their hands, smelling of oil and horse liniment, children in straightened socks and brushed breeches clutching their school slates, wives in short-sleeved dresses, their elder daughters blushing in newly ribbed plaits, Dr Hascha and the Pastor fussing at the front, Paul Koenig tightening the threadbare stretch of his policeman's uniform. And yes He did stop, first standing up in his dark-blue open seven-litre Mercedes, then stepping out, smaller than they had imagined, hat in hand, His brown suit a size too large and somewhat crumpled, his hair dry and unhealthy. But as He looked out over them, His gaze never faltering, it all became clear. Everything He saw belonged to Him! When He looked up at the gables, He saw His flags fluttering from His houses; when He held out His hands He placed them on the heads of His children, and when He bent low to receive their gifts they were His flowers He took, grown in His garden. He knew them all, the schoolmaster, the blacksmith, the midwife, knew them all, in this village and the village after this and the village after that. He was their master, wanting nothing for himself, only to make them safe and their land secure. Frau Tobelman standing on the steps of the inn had stepped forward bearing the tray of cakes they all knew to be His one weakness; strudels with sugar and nuts, the chocolate elairs, the marzipan fillings. He should not, they knew. To indulge would display a weakness, and weakness was to be shunned. And what about the next port of call and the one after that? Would He insult them by taking a cake here and refusing those? But then He caught her beseeching eye and, nodding as if He recognized the fatality of this lost cause, held a hovering hand over the display. He would sacrifice himself on the altar of her matronly art. This was the land of cakes and cake eaters, and was not He their representative on earth and in the mystical vaults of beyond? Reaching out He selected the biggest and took a bite, turned it in His mouth as they bit with Him, holding their breath as He savoured the balance of cream and pastry and the still German air. Handing the remainder to His aide He pronounced it the finest cake in the world! If He could choose another life for Himself, He would put His feet up on one of the tables in the inn here and spend the rest of His days eating plateful after plateful! How they had roared with merriment at the charm and absurdity of the idea. Then He had grown solemn and shaken Frau Tobelman's hand and murmured something soft, intimate, kissing the back of her hand. (The innkeeper's wife had spoken to Him! He had kissed her! For months afterwards she had been like a goddess or one of those figures out of Greek mythology, a bearer of great powers and great wisdom, transformed, not simply in her eyes but in the rest of the village's. Even his own mother, sophisticated, educated, had held her in awe after that.) Then He had turned, coming face to face with Lentsch. There was a wisp of cream on His moustache, a flake of pastry on his lapel. He looked at Lentsch as if He could hear the very fluttering of his past, as if He had lain by his side as a young boy, waiting for the geese to flap above, the soft grey of their bellies filled with warm and sacred blood. For a moment, terrible in its intensity, Lentsch had imagined that it was his destiny too, to be singled out that afternoon, that He would recognize in him an officer out of uniform, there to serve his country, and he had drawn himself up and stood to unmistakably military attention. But He did not seek him out. He did not draw him close. He looked. He saw. He turned away, plunging in the opposite direction with smiles and greetings, as if the sight of Lentsch had spoilt this uncomplicated treat. At the time Lentsch did not understand, but now came the tales of His great consuming hatred of His army and the secret admiration He held for Stalin, His Slavic enemy who had eliminated his troublesome officer class at one stroke. 'Would that I had done the same,' He had been heard to cry. Lentsch found it unimaginable that the nation's leader should utter such a thing. And now He was coming here if the war allowed, His own birthday present to Himself. The thought of Him strutting amongst these lanes filled him with revulsion. It was all very well at home. They deserved Him. These islanders did not, none of them. It was not their fault, any of it. Not Isobel's death, not the smuggling, not the broken families, the cheap love affairs, the bitter recriminations. None of it. This wretched traffic in misery was all their fault. His and Lentsch's and all the rest of them. They were devouring the island piece by piece, as though it were a house made of sweetmeats and they some monstrous army of Hansels and Gretels. And it came to him suddenly, a spoken voice that touched his heart. He must not come! He must not! Must not!"
Indeed, he had better not come. Preparations are being made:
"He has constructed this device in the same fashion that he used to make all his bombs, the only difference being that this one was bigger. They used to have such fun making them, him and his brother and young Ned, chucking them in, waiting for the earth to thud and bleeding rabbits dragging themselves out of the smoke-billowing holes. He has not been able to gauge the extent of this bomb's power, this mixture of sugar and weedkiller, these bags of six-inch nails and rusting bolts, clinking lumps all packed into jagged cans that once contained tinned peas and sweetened carrots, but it will make a mess of them, no doubting that.
"How had it come to him, this plan which will bring about the finale of his world? Lidichy, Lidichy, that was the start of it, that haunting name. He had often wondered what it must have been like, this village that has been handed around the drawing room like a game of pass the parcel, perhaps like one of the hamlets here, a little street, a few farm buildings, a church, a close-knit huddle for a few hundred souls. Before all the kerfuffle, when the Major was still in charge, they used to have this argument regularly about Lidichy and the bigwig that the partisans had killed nearby, blown up or shot, he could never quite work out which, though he took a week to die, he knew that. Whatever, the day he died they had surrounded this village, this Lidichy, sealed it off from the rest of the world and wiped it and those who lived there clean off the face of the earth. Didn't matter that the poor sods had nothing to do with it, it was like, 'Sorry, chum, you've got to go. The Major used to get in a terrific bate about it, the crime of Lidichy he called it. The others had got fed up with him rabbiting on. The name had stuck in his own mind, Lidichy, and thinking of it, this Lidichy which used to exist in flesh and stone and now did not, he began to dwell on its demise, brought about not through military design or an accidental misfortune of war but for example. Leaning out of the Captain's window one morning, flapping his bedclothes against the brickwork, it came to him that this was what Guernsey deserved to become, an example. Wasn't that what the Germans had planned for it anyway, that the Channel Islands should be a model Occupation? That's what this kid-glove stuff was all about, and see what a model it had become, the shame his countryman had brought upon his home: married women lying abed with the enemy while their menfolk perished on the high seas; young girls strutting down the High Street, poxed or pregnant, it was all the same to them; men tipping their caps to them, queuing up to do their dirty work. Everyone had turned rotten. He can feel the start of it even in himself, softening his moral backbone, turning his stubborn will to sap. The island needs grubbing out, like he would a bed of diseased fruit canes. Husbandry they used to call it, dig the lot out and burn the earth; the spirit of Lidichy. He had put his hands on the window sill and looking out had seen, stretching out over the back lawn, a vision of Guernsey emerging out of the mist, a Guernsey overgrown, a Guernsey denuded, water swilling in and out of a harbour of abandoned moorless boats, the town deserted, packs of dogs scavenging among the rubble, whole streets blown apart, farmhouses burnt, a forbidden island with nothing but wild flowers and gorse enveloping the ruins. Then the mist had cleared and in the solitude of the sea below he imagined a rowing boat and cloaked men in black raising their oars as the craft glided in to shore -- a new generation hoping to start afresh. He saw his Kitty standing in the prow, Kitty beside her man, Kitty with his grandchildren in her arms."
This book offers that rare combination of a good story told with style.-- Gerry Rising