2017 saw the publication of the 25th Anniversary edition of Fatherland by Robert Harris, which I managed to catch up with a few weeks ago.
Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. Fatherland imagines what would have happened to history if Germany had won the Second World War.
The story itself has a plot borrowed from Hollywood, starring a talented, world-weary cop who drinks, smokes and works all the time. Naturally his personal life is a mess. American cop movies rely on this kind of ambivalent central character. The law cannot be represented by a monolithic institution imposing justice. In America that would send the wrong message. Instead law has to show itself via a maverick individual, who opposes institutional incompetence or corruption. That idea has been flogged to death in America, where perhaps the idea of the maverick individual has become too powerful for its own good. But in a world where Germany won the war, such a character is perfect in portraying a struggle against an all-encompassing nightmare of institutional corruption. It’s like John McLean of Die Hard finding himself out of his jurisdiction, not in Los Angeles but in the London of George Orwell’s 1984.
Fatherland has interesting things to say about the way people shape history, creating their own alternative narratives. That said, I did find the plot laboured at times, and on occasion the cop cliches came over as, well, cliches, rather than clever commentaries on the difference between a totalitarian and a tolerant society. This was Robert Harris’ first novel, and I agree with his observation in the introduction that he went on to write better ones. Nevertheless, the quality of ideas driving those later novels is also evident here