Friday, September 16, 2016

Review of The Constant Soldier by William Ryan (Mantle, 2016)

1939, Vienna, Oskar and Judith are arrested for spreading anti-Nazi leaflets.  Given the choice of a camp or the army, Paul Brandt – aka Oskar – chooses the latter.  Five years later he is evacuated from the Russian front badly scarred and missing an arm.  After recovery in a hospital he returns to his village home in Silesia to recuperate.  Near to his father’s farm is a SS rest hut – a luxurious retreat for SS officers on leave from the front or from managing the many concentration camps in the area.  As Brandt passes the compound he recognizes Judith among the small group of female prisoners and vows that he’ll find some way to free and protect her.  An opportunity to access the hut soon presents itself and he starts work, to the horror of his family, as a steward, unrecognizable to his former lover due to his disfigured face.  Discipline within the compound is strict and brutal but Brandt does his best to make the five women prisoners' lives more bearable as he tries to plot an escape.  However, as 1945 begins the Russians are poised to launch a new offensive and the Germans are planning a scorched earth policy and to kill or march west witnesses to their atrocities.
The Constant Soldier is set in Silesia in the tail end of the Second World War.  Sent home to recuperate after losing an arm Paul Brandt spots his former lover as a prisoner working in a luxurious retreat for SS men and decides he has to do all he can to save her, even if it means alienating himself from his family and local residents.  From the moment Brandt spots Judith there’s a seemingly inevitable resolution to the plot.  However, how that assumed outcome will be reached is far less certain and the power of the story is its exploration of the moralities, disposition and actions of Brandt, the SS officers, their Ukrainian allies, and local population as the threat from partisans and advancing Russians rises, the entwining of despair and hope amongst the female prisoners, and the very gradual rekindling of the relationship between Brandt and Judith.  Ryan nicely examines how some SS officers are regretful and guilt-ridden, others are resigned to their fate or plot their own escape, and some harden their resolve and brutality.  Brandt’s dilemma is to try and navigate theses different dispositions; to persuade others to help him while keeping his intentions a secret and to make contact with local partisans who’d like him dead.  Brandt’s quest is thus full of tension and danger and high running emotions as everyone waits for the Russians arrive.  Rather than painted in black and white terms, instead the story is full of shades of grey as ordinary humanity mixes with its more extraordinary forms creating an emotive and engaging narrative.  In the second half of the tale Ryan interweaves a separate subplot following the progress towards Germany of ‘Little Polya’, a female tank driver.  While of some interest it added little and was somewhat of a distraction and if removed would have made no difference to the main story.  Nonetheless, The Constant Soldier is a fine literary tale of redemption, survival and love as the world verges on descent into chaos.

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