Sirius by Jonathan Crown; Trans. Jamie Searle Romanelli, book review: The refugee pet who takes on Hitler

Loyal, resilient four-legged protagonists are the perfect witnesses to history

Max Liu
Thursday 20 August 2015 16:01 BST
Ankle-level view of history: Adolf Hitler
Ankle-level view of history: Adolf Hitler

Jonathan Crown has written a lovely novel about Nazi Germany. The success of Crown's light approach to serious subject matter owes much to Sirius, the extraordinary dog of the title, whose name is changed from "Levi" by his Jewish owners, the Liliencrons, when the Nazis ban Jews from owning pets.

I hadn't considered it before, but Sirius is such a shrewd observer that I'm now convinced that loyal, resilient four-legged protagonists are the perfect witnesses to history. It's fitting, too, that Sirius is appearing shortly after the death of Uggie, the Jack Russell that starred in The Artist, because Crown's protagonist warrants his own place in the canine cultural canon.

Sirius roams Berlin, chatting to trees and raising a placatory paw in salute whenever he encounters suspicious Nazis: "The routes of his walks are still the same, but many familiar faces have disappeared." When Carl Liliencron, a distinguished scientist, is sacked, he regrets being slow to recognise the danger. His son, Georg, is under no illusions: "This is no longer our country."

Crown describes Kristallnacht with economy and immediacy: "One apartment after the other is emptied. The henchmen's boots thunder through every stairwell. 'Are there Jews living here?' 'Yes, upstairs,' the neighbours denounce."

Sirius and the Liliencrons narrowly escape to California where they change their surname to Crown. Carl works as a chauffeur for a movie star, meeting Rita Hayworth and his fellow émigré Billy Wilder, until Jack Warner recognises Sirius's talent and puts him on screen. After the horrors of Europe, it's surprising to find the Hollywood scenes too breezy and to crave some tension to return to the narrative. Fortunately, Crown concocts a series of unlikely events which whisks Sirius back to Berlin where Hitler takes a shine to him. Eventually, Sirius plays an instrumental role in the Nazis' downfall.

The happy ending is in keeping with the tone of the book but is it acceptable in a novel concerning an event that for millions of people ended in tragedy? Yes, because for Crown, lightness is a moral gesture and an effective mode in which to confront the atrocity. Jamie Searle Romanelli captures this in her translation and, from Crown's dedication onwards, it's clear that beneath the comic veneer, a grave imperative drives his storytelling: "For my family, who lived in Berlin during that period." Had Crown's ancestors not survived there would have been no Sirius. With this debut, Crown makes us consider those Jews who, unlike the Liliencrons, didn't escape.

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