Friday, September 05, 2014

Stuart Neville's Ratlines: Out of a different past

Several of Northern Ireland's brilliant cohort of crime writers write not just about their land's sectarian Troubles, but also about the conflict's afterlife (or persistence, if one prefers). Brian McGilloway, Garbhan Downey, and Anthony Quinn are just three who demonstrate that the Troubles continue to reverberate after the Good Friday Agreement.

Stuart Neville became an instant leader of the group with The Ghosts of Belfast, whose very title proves the continuing sensitivity of the subject. (The 2009 novel was released in the U.K. under the powerful but less politically charged title The Twelve.)

Neville crossed over the border and further into the past for his 2013 novel Ratlines.  The time is 1963, the occasion the murder of a Nazi given shelter in Ireland after World War II, and the novel's title a reference to the networks by which Nazis were helped to safety and, in some cases, to prosperity after the war.

Neville does a nice job imagining and investigating the sorts of corruption attendant on such arrangements, and not just the moral corruption that offers succor to evil men, either.  This novel's world has plenty of room for theft, dishonesty, and violence among the criminals themselves, and among the people who pursue them as well.  The book also contains flashes of just the sort of agony that haunted Fegan, the ex-IRA killer of The Ghosts of Belfast.   And, though I have never talked politics with Neville, I suspect after reading Ratlines that he is no fan of nationalism of whatever kind.

Stuart Neville will be part of my Belfast Noir: Stories of Mayhem and Murder from Northern Ireland panel at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, California. The fun starts at 11:30 a.m, Friday, Nov. 14, in the Regency B room. See you there.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Philip Amos said...

I requested Ratlines from the library after reading your post, Peter. One part of what you say about it piqued my curiosity: that Neville "...does a nice job imagining and investigating...", notable to me for not including the word 'researching'. I mean no criticism of a work I haven't yet read in so observing; it is simply that the entire story of the Ratlines as related by historians is in itself the 'stuff of fiction', as it were.

But your post has stimulated me more than just in that aspect. Since illness forced early retirement, I've always had a personal research project on the go, though obviously I can these days go into primary sources but little. One was a look at the role of the churches in all of the occupied or puppet states of Europe, and in Germany itself, and one major conclusion I came to has always quite shocked people. My initial intention expanded somewhat, for I continued into a close look at collaboration in France, and also at the Vatican.

Both of those, the Vatican most obviously, touched toward the end upon the Ratline business, but that I didn't pursue further. I shall now. It's what is so rarely even alluded to that I'm after. The role of Ireland is one. And Nazi war criminals going to Canada. Of course, we know there were/are such here; it's how that came to be that interests me. It is understandable that attention has tended to centre upon Odessa, but there is more to it than that.

September 07, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip: Unusually for a crime novel, Ratlines includes a short bibliography, so Neville did do his research. I chose the words I did first because of Neville's version of the usual disclaimer. Rather than write merely that "any resemblance to ... is coincidental," Neville says something like "This is fiction, not history." Also, while Otto Skorzeny is an important figure in the novel, and did, indeed, find some shelter in Ireland, I suspect the novel may take liberties with the details. The same may be true of Charles Haughey, Ireland's justice minister during the time of the book's setting and later its prime minister. I suspect Neville may have found the details of their lives fertile ground for creating a world of his own, which is a perfectly legitimate thing for a novelist to do.

You mention the Vatican. Surprisingly for a novel set in Ireland in the early 1960s, the church figures barely, if at all. Irish politics is the book's chosen establishment target. James R. Benn's novel Death's Door, on the other hand, is set in the Vatican during World War II. (Benn and Neville share a publisher, and Neville thanks Benn in his acknowledgments, so I suspect they have had a chat or two about World War II.)

September 07, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Very helpful, Peter. Thank you. You really should have become an historian, my friend, and it's not too late. I'm old enough to recall the halcyon days of renowned and highly respected amateur historians in Britain. Think of Dame Veronica Wedgwood, e.g. And so back to Carlyle, Macaulay. Now retired, I suppose I'm another one in a certain sense.

I just read what I wrote (something I've never enjoyed)in my first post, and I noticed what might be read as a segue, and if so very misleading. The thing at the end of my study that people certainly do find half-surprising, if they at least know a little about the matter, is that the churches of only two countries came out of the war with nobility, in my view. (Philosophically, I'm an Idealist, and therefore a relativist.) Significantly, both, though one more than the other, had significant influence on their governments. I say half-surprised, for one was, no surprise at all, Denmark. But the other was Bulgaria, and people just don't expect that. The story of Bulgaria in the War is fascinating in toto, but we need more and better books on it. As also more on Moravia, one of the most ignomious.

I could go on about this, but Blogger will cut me off. I'll just say that it is a funny business, is it not, when President Father Josef Tiso of Slovakia is shovelling Jews onto trains so fast that Eichmann gets angry with him because there aren't enough trains. At the same time, the Metropolitan of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church proclaims that he will lie on the tracks in front of the train before he will allow Jews to be sent to Auschwitz. Yes, Tiso was Catholic, yet the Catholic churches in Germany were far less inclined to Nazism than were the Lutherans of the North.

An afterthought of my two-year exploration of all this - it grew and grew - was that the literature lacks overarching studies of the churches, of the governments, and also of the resistance movements. There are things therein that have not been sufficiently brought out, and current events in parts of Europe, including Slovakia, make it crucial that people are reminded of what happened in those lands not so long ago.

September 07, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, Bulgaria in the war would be well worth knowing about. Thanks.

And thanks for the suggestion for a future life's path. My two preferred alternative careers have long been cartoonist and neuroscientist. I have always thought of history as something I enjoy reading, rather than something I should be doing. But yes, I did read Wedgwood on the Thirty Years War, and I did read the first two volumes of Macaulay's History of England, which I now suddenly in a mind to finish.

September 07, 2014  

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