I learned about “Fatherland” after reading Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” both of which were alternate histories that re-imagined the circumstances (and outcome) of World War II. Before reading either book, I’d never really given much thought to the idea of an “alternate history novel,” but Roth’s book in particular opened my eyes to how such a book could match all that we love about literature (complex characters, complex themes, intense imagination) with all that we love about nonfiction history (intense research, the complex relationship between the smallest conversations and the largest events/battles/tragedies, the cause-effect connections that we might never have considered). “The Plot Against America” was rich indeed, and what made it such a remarkable work of literature was that it could make us interested in the characters and their fates on the first page, and then interested in the specifics of the imagined world on the next…and it all seemed so creepily real.
“Fatherland” doesn’t quite achieve the same heavy characterization as Roth’s novel, but then again, if we compare every other author to Philip Roth, nobody’s got a chance. This is a much different book, written from a much different perspective: whereas “Plot” took place in America and focused upon the Jewish perspective, “Fatherland” takes us directly into post-war Germany, where many years after the Nazis have won World War II, a detective begins to notice a strange series of murders and suicides of state officials, a mystery that will eventually lead him to some startling revelations about the entire Fatherland. It’s a murder-mystery, so it’s actually got a great deal in common with Chabon’s “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” and here’s the good news: it never felt like a cheap mystery novel or a cheap Patterson-style paint-by-numbers thriller. Harris is a strong writer, painting vivid descriptions of his world and populating it with characters who rarely feel as if they are going through the motions of the plot. This is literature, not pulp.
In fact, the strongest point of “Fatherland” is not necessarily the mystery that the characters work to solve (once the clues start piling up, you’ll easily be able to solve it yourself), but instead the overall tone of the book. Victorious Germany is a scary scary place, dark and cold and wet, and every character is deeply repressed. If the question that this book poses is, “What would have happened to the Germans if they’d won the war?” then the answer is, “They’d all be miserable.” This is a country where murders and suicides are frequent, a country whose borders are subject to frequent terrorist attacks, a country of concrete and stone edifices built to honor leaders who have long since lost their humanity. And what’s worse? Germany is a respected world power, and the shining beacon of the U.S.A. is dimmed by their cooperation with Germany, and their own forgetfulness of Germany’s atrocities. It’s almost a dystopian world, as chilling as any post-apocalyptic novel you’ll ever read.
But there’s one other reason I’d recommend “Fatherland” for interested writers/readers alike: this is also a striking example of mixed-media fiction, as Harris intersperses the final half of the narrative with memos, letters, and other documents that help show the Fatherland in greater detail. In fact, the inside cover of the book provides a map of the novel’s great set piece, including visual renderings of the structures that Hitler would have built had he won the war. The memos and letters, though, are not simply the disturbing products of Harris’ imagination, but instead are the real textual artifacts of World War II Germany. In other words, Harris uses real documents in his novel,. While I’ve seen dozens of authors create fictional letters, memos, etc., and incorporate them into a narrative in order to create a greater sense of realism, or in order to move the plot in new and interesting ways (or in order to better reveal character), I can’t remember ever seeing an author incorporate real artifacts. Some novelists use real song lyrics, or real telecasts, or real speeches, to place their characters into a real world where Lenny Bruce is giving his stand-up routine, or the Doors are performing on stage, or someone is watching Ronald Reagan on TV…but real documents that the audience has likely never read, that were revealed in court proceedings after the war, but (in this novel) were imagined to have been lost/ hidden? It’s a brilliant use of “mixed-media fiction,” and it elevates the novel and the novelist and further immerses us in a world that feels too real.
“Fatherland” is a quick read, filled with dark descriptions and a fast-paced plot that always relies upon the characters’ motivations rather than the standard plot formulas of thriller novels. No, it’s not “The Plot Against America,” but (for my money) it’s much sharper than Chabon’s attempt at alternate history. If the description of this book interests you in any way, you won’t be disappointed.