On 3 April 1945, after a heavy bombardment, the Americans enter the town of Lohenfelde. In the cellars of the ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Corporal Neal Parry finds four charred corpses; and later a fifth, with a notebook in its pocket and two bullet holes in its chest. He also finds a painting, which he keeps as salvage. By the end of this novel we know who wrote the notebook, why the fifth man was killed, and that Parry's dream of building a better future from these ruins was an illusion, like everything else in Germany.
We follow three interlocking stories: Parry's; that of Heinrich Hoffer, director of the museum; and that of the writer of the notebook, through brief, mysterious extracts. It is some time before we realise the writer is a Jewish girl secretly hidden in the museum attics by his staff. By then they are all dead, and no one will ever know. Nor will anyone ever know what happened to the museum's Van Gogh.
As well as suspense, there is genuine drama. We are in two cellars - the museum's, and that of Hoffer's apartment block, where his two daughters are trapped. Hoffer fights his last battle with his rival, the SS fanatic Bendel, and Parry struggles to save Hoffer's daughters. Almost no one wins; especially the victors, into whose blood - in one of the darkest moments of this dark book - Bendel sees Hitler's evil spirit slipping.
The Rules of Perspective is a gripping read, as well written as everything by Adam Thorpe. His observation is precise - the living Germans with their "panda eyes", the dead ones burnt not black but purple. And the portrait of Hoffer is good: the classic collaborator, beaten into obedience; an ordinary man who adapts his idea of duty to his only real ideal, survival.
Why, then, don't I love The Rules of Perspective, as I loved Thorpe's Ulverton, for example? I think it's the absence of true love and true knowledge. Apart from Hoffer, the other Germans are stock characters - a desiccated scholar with a heart of gold, the women with their unquestioning love of the Führer. The Americans too, with their tough talk, seem stereotypes; and the bits of the Jewish girl's diary have nothing Jewish or girlish about them.
This is an accomplished effort, but the Germans themselves - as WG Sebald said - should write this story.
Carole Angier's 'Primo Levi: the double bond' is published by PenguinReuse content