Books: Something nasty in the cistern

What if Hitler hadn't been born? Hugo Barnacle investigates; Making History by Stephen Fry Hutchinson, pounds 15.99

Suppose you are a graduate history student at Cambridge. Your on-off girlfriend is a biochemist who has perfected a male sterilisation pill and your acquaintance Professor Zuckermann is a physicist who has perfected a machine capable of sending small samples of matter through space and time.

Obviously, you make use of the machine to project the pill into the water cistern that supplied the Hitlers' street in Braunau-am-Inn back in 1888. Little Dolfi can't be born. Doddle. The snag is, as soon as you push the button, history changes so that you never came to this lab today to do the deed in the first place. Sucked into a quantum singularity, you black out, and either that's your lot, because history now dictates that your parents never met, or, as in Stephen Fry's new novel, you come round in a confusingly different world.

Fry's narrator and hero, Michael Young (funny how often authors' names share syllabic patterns with their central characters'), finds himself in Princeton with everybody wondering why on earth he's suddenly started talking in a weird British accent. It seems that his parents defected from Nazi England in 1958 and he was born right here in the USA. And Europe is still Nazi, and so are Asia and Africa.

He should have foreseen something like this. Take Hitler out of the picture and not only do you still get popular grassroots Nazism, you could get someone less stupid than Hitler at the top. And remember, German doctors are thorough. They noticed the freak outbreak of sterility in Braunau, traced it to the water and spent decades analysing samples till they could isolate and synthesise the molecules responsible. Guess which race they then choose to sterilise out of existence?

Michael's only course is to find Zuckermann again and try to project something gobsmackingly putrid into the Braunau water of 1888, so that nobody drinks it till the cistern has been drained and cleaned. That way Frau Hitler gives birth, millions die, but at least the Reich collapses in 1945.

Michael has an additional motive. He is increasingly drawn to his fellow Princeton student, Steve, who appears to reciprocate. Now, the technology in this alternative America is very advanced but the never-ending cold war with Berlin means that society is rather backward, all crew-cut conformity. Negroes know their place. No one has heard of rock'n'roll or hippies. And life for gays is a lonely hell. If only normal historical service could be resumed, Steve would be free to be himself and Michael might even manage to get back together with him afterwards.

Fry has misjudged things here. Placing the Holocaust and a nice, soppy love story side by side makes the nice, soppy love story look too trivial. It also amounts to a frightful infraction of the rules of taste, but that matters less because the subject of the Holocaust defies taste anyway.

Fry seems to have written Making History at a dash. Apart from the references to Trainspotting and Thomas Hamilton, which could be late stop-press insertions, the acknowledgments at the back cite as a basic inspiration Daniel Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, which has been out only for a short while.

Braunau is mysteriously mis-spelt ''Brunau'' throughout. Is the missing A supposed to stand for the missing Adolf? In which case, why is it missing in the early flashback scenes when Adolf is present? Or did Fry, in his haste, simply misread his research notes?

The novel cracks itself up to be more thoughtful than it really is, but it has the author's distinctive wit; there is no denying its entertainment value. Benefiting from a childlike quality of make-believe, it has a powerful imaginative pull that keeps the pages turning while the tea goes cold and the cat gets the goldfish. A slight drawback is the use of facile stylistic flourishes: scenes cast in screenplay form, too many clever quotations, the first line of a new chapter echoing the last line of the one before, that sort of thing. Fry writes well enough to dispense with these tricks. Who else would have made the observation that fluorescent tubes ''spank themselves alight'' when you switch them on?

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