Death Zones

Written by Simon Pasternak

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung


Death Zones
Harvill-Secker
RRP: £16.99
Released: April 28 2016
HBK

Maps were found not just on map tables at headquarters during the Second World War, but in barracks, factory canteens and even on the walls of domestic kitchens.

Soldiers and civilians followed the ebb and flow of war, men on the front line planned the best routes for advance, identified forests in which they could disguise their sorties and marked their weak points that might be attacked by their enemies. The map has not been made yet, though, which does have one advantage: the map is not the territory. Map distances that seem only inches in London or centimetres in Berlin might be not just days long [in travel terms], but weeks or even months for the soldier. That travel will become worse, of course, as supply lines become stretched. A kubelwagon could go many kilometres on a tankful of fuel, but would then have to stop to refill, or worse wait for the tankers to catch up.

It is only recently that fiction has started to catch up with the distances over which the Nazi forces advanced into the east [Philip Kerr's A Man Without Breath (2013) is one of the few].

Simon Pasternak's Death Zones is set in that enormous unmapped space, where, Oberleutnant Heinrich Hoffman wishes he were somewhere else. Kerr’s anti-hero Bernie Gunther had been sent with the imprimatur of Reichsminister Goebbels, but Hoffman is a junior officer with superiors riding his back, and his nose being forced deeper and deeper into the moral morass of anti-partisan fighting. The cruelty of the army's behaviour to the local peasantry is bad enough to bear on any ordinary day; when the cruelty starts to ramp up, Hoffman begins to wonder why.

Hoffman has a girlfriend back in Hamburg to whom he starts to write – but never completes – letters that should be outpourings of unconditional love, but start to fill with explications of his moral doubts. These are letters he recognises would not pass the army censor, let alone any other official eye should they reach Germany. Despite his doubts Hoffman begins to play policeman, tracking down a mastermind partisan who has been imitating his own double, only to start wondering if all is as it seems. That the superior office who drives him on is not only his school-friend but his future brother-in-law makes his agony worse. There are torture scenes but at the worse one (it echoes Mason Verger's intention for Hannibal Lecter) Hoffman learns a code word, which leads him back to Hamburg, having realised the duplicity of his superior and friend. Hoffman's own journey requires him to become compromised, a killer travelling under an assumed identity, before the city opens its true corrupt heart to him.

Some readers will object to the emphasis placed on violence throughout the book; others may not like the abrupt short-sentences, fragments of conversation, and sections without description, though these do give an idea of the separation of place which allows so much villainy to fester. Simon Pasternak wrote this novel in Danish, and it may appeal to a more continental consciousness: for example, Hoffman is obsessed by the likeness of his girlfriend Eline to the actress Zarah Leander, which echoes Hitchcock's Vertigo and its blonde double, unfortunately Zarah Leander is not well known to English readers (though Swedish, she worked for Goebbel's UFA film studio, a connection to her disadvantage) and so we miss that historical connection to reinforce our identity with Hoffman.

Some of the characters with whom Hoffman has to work were real, one of them Oskar Dirlewanger, leader of a sonder (special) unit, a truly horrible man, to whom justice was done in the last days of the War. Using real people, though, brings another problem – the records, diaries and letters of these people all seem to record them having the time of their lives. Ernst Klee collected some of these in Germany, available in translation as 'The Good Old Days' or 'Those Were The Days': the original German title 'Schoene Zeiten' was found on a commander's photo album went he was finally caught in the 1950s. So, as Simon Pasternak has done, to cast a man with morals into this world is a major effort of fiction; whether it is worth it, though, is another matter.

 

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