The International Writers Magazine: Reviews: Books
Dominion by C J Sansom
Mantle Hardback Oct 2012
ISBN : 978-0-230-74416-5
The Afrika Reich - Guy Saville
Hodder (paperback) 2011
In 1952 Germany rules all.
Which side would you be on?
I must state in advance here that I too have just written a counter factual novel that will come out in March 2013 so my interest in these two books is professional.
Both these novels make the presumption that appeasement triumphed after the disaster of Dunkirk 1940 and both books, rather oddly, are set in 1952, living in a world completely dominated by a ruthless oppressive Third Reich. Both accept that Viscount Halifax rather than Churchill took over to negotiate the ‘peace’ and in both cases England was allowed to keep the ‘Empire’ but faced increasing tariffs in trading with Europe. Both follow the arc of Robert Harris’s Fatherland in accepting that the fate of the Jews was never discovered (although there are different final solutions posited here). The conceit of alt history is that anything can happen if you divert from history in one small way (turn on a sixpence as C. J Sansom remarks) and everything follows from that.
I wanted to see how both writers treated the trajectory of history following the acceptance of ‘peace’ rather than war in 1940. How readily Britain accepts fascism and how firm any resistance would be. Dominion is a story about resistance; The Afrika Reich is more boys own story set against some unimaginable violence again Africans. Both writers then are following the logic of Hitler’s victory and both assume that subjugation of the Russians would always be a ‘problem’.
In Afrika Reich cruelty builds a vast autobahn from neutral South Africa’s border to the German Congo so that the rich mineral resources can be extracted using slave labour.
The UK in C J Samsom’s novel is still decrepit, run down, depressing, utterly willing to be subject to Oswald Mosley as Home Secretary. The police and army are infected by fascism and modern London of 1952 is stricken by a lethal fog (borrowed from real life and a real killer). It reads like an episode of Foyle’s War but very slowly with many little backstory flashbacks that could have been left on the cutting floor.
The Afrika Reich is strictly a boy’s own adventure. Guns, impossible odds, hired assassins fly in to the German Congo to assassinate the Governor General – a psychotic racist who has literally paved the new city square with African skulls.
The assassination seems to be successful and against all odds (despite being betrayed) they fight their way out of the situation and Burton the hero, with Philip, the tough neutral American, head towards Angola where the Germans are planning a simultaneous invasion and Rhodesia. One doesn’t really have a feel for the Africa - the place but as a rip roaring Dogs Of War tale with tough guys overcoming all odds against despicable enemies it’s a bloody fast read and has more pace than even a Bourne movie. Credible? Not really, but you don’t really care because it is a lot of fun and there are some interesting characters (notably the teen Angolan terrorist who wants to blow up a new tunnel to prevent the Germans invading Luanda.)
C J Sansom takes a different more sober tack. His writing style is very period. As if he has watched 'Brief Encounter' just once too often. I realised he is going for authentic 1952 dialogue, but it is often so formal, the exposition so over explained, it grates. The pace suffers terribly in the first half. The story concerns an unambitious civil servant called David who used to flat share with Frank (now a researcher on meteorites) who has been locked up in a mental institution for attempting to kill his brother (visiting from America) and shouting ‘It’s the end of the world’. It is not giving anything away that the topic here is atomic and the whole thrust of the novel is ‘we mustn’t let the Germans have the information’.
Dominion is full of arch stock characters, whether villains or resistance. It’s depressing and weirdly the most interesting character is the SS German Jew hunter – sent over to the London to ‘interview’ the mad scientist. He is cold, calculating, cynical and ruthless. So many other players feel like they have drifted in from an Agatha Christie play and are standing around waiting for a bit of dialogue. David aggrieved wife Sarah gets far too much airtime and one longs for something to happen. A central plank of the story takes place in the great fog of ’52 when 12,000 people died of respitory illness and these sequences are well written, authentic and gripping.
Both novels are curios. 1952 is so long ago and it is hard to understand some attitudes or the complacency and acceptance, but the ‘what if’ element keeps you reading. We move on, tempered by our times and attitudes and sometimes (well pretty much all the way through) the racism of all the characters intended or unconscious jars. In these novels women’s liberation would have been still born. Both enable the reader to conclude we had a lucky escape that it was Churchill that followed the ineffectual Chamberlain and not Halifax. We would not have liked this fascist world or the logic of their obsessions. What category are you? How pure is your blood? What do you know about your great grandfather? And how could you live in a world where such things matter?
If I had to choose then The Afrika Reich is a faster read but both will leave a nasty taste in your mouth for a reality that very nearly happened.
© Sam North December 2012
author of Mean Tide and The Curse of the Nibelung - A Sherlock Holmes mystery