The Butchers Of Berlin
By Chris Petit
Simon & Schuster – £12.99
The last entry, in a shaking hand, was barely legible. ‘I would rest my head on her bosom and die content. Other than that there is nothing to live for, ‘Ten years of terror and we are dust already, waiting only for our bones to be ground, flesh reduced to the thinnest parchment, the spirit long departed. They have kicked the shit out of us.
Concise yet colourful, tough yet tightly written,Chris Petit’s The Butchers Of Berlin is a cornucopia of varying qualities, almost all of which insist on transporting the reader unto another place. A place that is intrinsically fascinating whilst simultaneously fraught with the psychological devastation of war (and everything that that entails).
That place is a war-torn Berlin in 1943, where one of the most quizzical of questions invariably needs to be asked: ”In the middle of a war, why should one more murder matter?”
The book’s prime protagonist, August Schlegel, is a reticent dog with a bone, who, if nothing else, intends (by default) to get to the bottom of a murder and a suicide that opens the book nigh immediately: ”The pistol was an old Mauser C96. He appreciated the aesthetics of its distinctive box magazine in front of the trigger, the long elegant barrel and comfort of the wooden handle. His last companion of choice. His hands were cold but he would not wear gloves. He passed through the apartment, careful not to disturb the others because he wished to leave unobserved. He closed the door softly behind him, stood at the top of the stairs and stared into the descending gloom.”
Such a rich mixture of introduction and explanation might well be all one needs – in order to head off into the literary litany of the unknown.
Other than the fact that a murder has taken place and it’s Berlin during the middle of the Second World War, the reader is essentially left to his or her own imaginative devices. An inner sanctum, which, it has to be said, is more than augmented by fine, novelistic writing:
”[…] the arrangement of the letters tight and sinister, as though the man had allowed the angriness in his brain to spill directly onto the page. Doodles filled the margins, black scribbles, angry crossing-out, strange fractures, skulls. They were a mess, yet strangely professional and abstracted, making them hard to read. Like the handwriting, they contrived to be both meticulous and explosive.
‘I have long ceased to exist, except as a husk, pausing only to note with heavy heart that suffering makes beasts of us all. Otherwise my days are filled with idle infatuation; the pathetic fantasies of an old man. Such beauty condemned. The nape of the neck. The turn of the hip. The delicate furrow between nose and lip (is there a name for that?).”’
”Such beauty condemned” might well have made for a far more inviting, interesting title for this these 482 pages. But, as Alan Moore has made perfectly clear since The Butchers Of Berlin’s publication: ”Conjuring a wartime Berlin where atrocities get lost against a ground of escalating Holocaust, Chris Petit’s nerve-wracking SS procedural nurses a dread that penetrates right to the marrow. An appalling, beautifully lit abyss.”
An appalling, beautifully lit abyss; what more could you ask for?