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?

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own