Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Field Grey: Philip Kerr

Previously on "grumbling about stuff I'm not smart enough to do myself", I unburdened myself of some thoughts on the continuing adventures of Bernie Gunther, the central character in Kerr's continuing series of novels about - actually, damned if I know at this stage. Kerr seems to be on a mission to remind us that everyone's just as awful as everyone else, and in Field Grey one of the mission statements seems to be to remind us that France wasn't just plucky Maquisards plotting the downfall of the Reich. Another one is that the CIA is - I hope my imaginary readers are sitting in their imaginary armchairs for this bit, imaginary smelling salts to hand - just as bad as the KGB. And that Bernie is as bad as any of them, which makes it damned hard to root for anyone, I have to say.

I complained earlier on that the standard Gunther book trick of switching back and forth between pre and post war worlds was starting to show some strain. While Field Grey isn't as broken backed as If the Dead Rise Not, there's definitely rather too many time frames tangled up in each other in this book and after a while I sort of gave up trying to keep track of when the heck we were. Up to our neck in moral ambiguity, for the most part. I won't swear that this is a complete inventory of time and locale, but we swap from 1955 Cuba/USA to 1941 Ukraine to 1940 Berlin and Paris, back to 1945 Siberia/Czech Republic forward to 1948 and forward again to 1955 - repeatedly.

Through all of this Bernie endures a lot, but it's not entirely instructive. Kerr's always been circling back to the question of what Gunther got up to in the war, intentionally leaving it blank so as to create a gap in the centre of our understanding of the character, but as he reworks the margins of this deliberately empty space, contradictions are beginning to show up. It's not so much the physical continuity, though I won't swear that's perfect either, as the psychological continuity. I can accept that there are things which Bernie would elide as he confides in the reader, dodge his way around, try to pretend that they never happened; I just find it hard to see the changes which they should have caused in him. Bernie before the war is supposed to be a different kind of person to Bernie after the war, but it's hard to get a real sense of any change at all.

And there's the law of diminishing returns. Bernie's getting older, his options are falling away, and with every book he seems to be painted ever more into a corner from which he can't escape. How much more can Kerr do with the character? I imagine there's at least one more book - well, I just checked, and it's called Prague Fatale. That makes it 1941 and the assassination of Heydrich, I imagine. and some other framing narrative. Ah well.

And a shout-out, while I think of it, to the guy who wrote the incredibly misleading blurb on the back of my copy, which describes about the last forty pages of the book as though it were the beginning. Little things like that can really feed into the experience of the book.

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