From the Publisher
“Ambitious. . . . A thought-provoking and complex look at one man’s Hamlet-like moral dilemma.”
“Norman Lebrecht is an original writer concerned with large moral questions, and admirably skeptical of accepted truths about human behavior and motivation. The Game of Opposites pushes the reader beyond the simplistic safety zone of moral category (good, evil; moral, immoral) into complex, dramatically compelling terrain. Reading this novel is like hearing a familiar song in a startling new voice.”
—John Burnham Schwartz, author of The Commoner and Reservation Road
“Original and poignant. . . . Lebrecht is a fluid, beautiful writer. . . . He tackles a large moral dilemma and creates a page-turner from it.”
—Baltimore Jewish Times
“A compelling and deeply human novel of ideas that examines the toll of World War II, fascism, and the Holocaust. It is a tale of simple survival and, more importantly, a meditation on good, evil, guilt, love, rage, and the panoply of emotions that roil the lives of survivors. Unforgettable.”
—Booklist (starred review)
Whitbread First Novel Award-winner Lebrecht (for The Song of Names) stiffly examines the psychological and moral dilemmas of living in a post-Holocaust world. When Paul Miller stumbles out of a work camp in an unnamed European country, he is saved by Alice, who hides him in the attic of her family inn. He eventually takes up residence in the town and marries Alice. Paul is continually torn between his love for his wife and son, and the guilt he feels living in a place where he endured so much torment. When he's elected mayor, Paul creates plans to modernize the idyllic mountain town and bury his past, but then the former prison commandant returns, and Paul is conflicted: take revenge or move on with his life? This novel's exploration of the shades of good and evil is hobbled, however, by characters who feel shaped by what they were created to represent as opposed to the humanity that might exist in them. The overly allegorical feel keeps the reader at too much of a distance and flattens what could be compelling imagery and characters into symbols. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The psychic scars of a death-camp survivor just won't stop itching. When we meet Paul Miller he's a popular guy in a mountain village in a thinly disguised Germany. The 30-something architect has just been elected the town's first postwar mayor, winning over the residents with, of all things, an espresso machine installed in the ancient hostelry where he works. What they don't see is the rage and self-loathing percolating behind Paul's friendly facade. He is in torment because this is the same village that housed the notorious labor camp where he was confined during the war. Every day the prisoners would march past the gaze-averting villagers to break rocks in the quarry while Paul designed a weapon silo, watched by the brutal commandant Hans. After their liberation, Paul was nursed back to health by the innkeeper's daughter Alice, a simple, loving soul who will later marry him and give him a son. What she can't give him is peace of mind, for Paul carries heavy baggage. When war broke out in his native Poland, his parents and Jewish fiancee were seized; the fiancee was later crucified on a church door. Paul was blameless but is crippled by guilt, made worse by his irrational misgiving that he failed his fellow prisoners. From this material Lebrecht could have spun a revenge yarn, with Paul tracking down the evil Hans, or a couch drama, with Paul spilling his guts to an analyst. Instead he gives us a bit of both, but not in a way that creates suspense. Hans is found hiding in plain sight. Should Paul kill him? He and his analyst wrestle with this, though Paul had already decided in the camp that murder was not an option. The climax is a messy, melodramatic compromise. Lebrecht's firstnovel (The Song of Names, 2004) was grounded by his deep knowledge of music, but here he is as unmoored as his hapless hero.
Read an Excerpt
Part One: Flight
At four in the morning, an hour before the cement mixer is due, Paul creeps downstairs in woollen socks and pulls on his trousers in the wood-panelled tavern bar, the air heavy with the past night’s conviviality. Fumbling past the silent coffee machine, a stair light winking off its curved steel wall, he brews himself a small black pot on the old crusted hob and sips the scalding bitterness through a rock-hard almond biscuit, the last of the batch that Alice baked for Easter. Crossing the room once more, he caresses the coffeemaker with trailing fingertips.
The coffeemaker was Paul’s dearest possession, his defining object. He had picked it up “on the lack” and trundled it for miles on the back of a jeep before unwrapping it in front of a twitter of village lives, his masculine perversity gratified by their shrieks of dismay. He had hoped the contraption would cause alarm, and it satisfied his wishes to the full. To the huddle of black bonnets around the bar, Paul’s machine was a pulsing threat, a disruption to the natural order. There was no telling the harm it might do. A man in need of strong coffee after a hard night’s lambing in the fields would be lured away from hearth and hob by this sibilant hussy. One sip, and a husband was lost. The ladies had read of such things in picture magazines and were not about to permit them in the village. “Take it away, landlord,” shrilled the butcher’s wife, “before I ask Father Hitzinger to denounce it this very Sunday.”
It cost Paul three rounds of free tastings to convince the bonnets that his novelty was innocuous, its dainty servings so different from their kitchen dispensations as to pose no challenge to their domain. A real man, he explained, would always require a large dose of the handmade. His tiny shots of steam-pressed coffee were meant for visitors, for city people jaded by luxury and condemned to a vapid quest for extreme sensation, effete couples who came to the inn for cynically themed “country weekends.” This machine was strictly for what Paul called “passing trade.”
The ladies, receptive to slick assurances, flattered by his attention, and emboldened by the fierce extract that surged through their child-worn frames, turned bold and mildly flirtatious, as people do when free drinks are being served. “It is a fine beverage, landlord,” declared the market carrot seller with the comically jutting bosom. “It is hot and aromatic and rasping to the tongue, but it is not what we around here call coffee, oh no. Coffee is what we grind by hand, with the grime of our fingernails and a fleck of sweat from the brow. When you want real coffee, landlord, boiled through and through and served in a man-sized mug, just knock at my door and I will show you proper coffee.”
“And if her gimpy old man is out in the fields,” cackled a wrinkled head scarf at the fringe of the throng, “our Regina will show you plenty else besides.”
“Shut your cesspit, Elsa,” snapped the carrot woman. “The landlord is a Christian gentleman. He does not need to hear such filth. I apologise for the feeble old lady, landlord. This posh coffee of yours has gone straight to her head.”
“ ‘Old’?” squeaked her antagonist. “She and I were in the same class at school. She’s got a prolapsed womb and can’t stand up straight for arthritis. I’ll give her old. . . .”
“Ladies, ladies,” soothed Paul, shepherding them to the door and bolting it when the last was gone, his plan fulfilled. Soon no man within miles would be unaware of his acquisition or incurious to see it in action, eager to sacrifice another slice of rural lore for the benefits of modern convenience.
As if in response to the women’s sensitivities, Paul hung a sign on the machine the next morning, saying that it was out of order, awaiting a vital part. For a whole month, it stood bare and idle on the bar top, like a villain in stocks on assizes day, an object of casual derision. Two days before its reinauguration, Paul posted a notice outside and took on extra hands behind the bar to cope with the anticipated rush. At the second unveiling of the miraculous steam machine, the Laughing Hind was packed so full with unfamiliar faces that its wooden beams seemed to bend outwards to accommodate them all. Rye farmers in mud-caked boots jostled lumberjacks from deep in the forest. Poachers were drawn from their traps and goatherds from vertiginous mountain huts. All converged to inspect a mechanical intruder which, rumour had it, was about to change a staple of their existence.
They rallied much as their great-grandparents had gathered a hundred years before to watch curls of smoke from the first locomotive, aware that the steady tread of their lives was under attack, that a man might no longer earn his keep from the shearing of sheep, as his womenfolk spun wool and his sons repaired the looms and shod the village horses. The puffing iron carriageway would render their rustic crafts redundant and all would be forced to work in dark factories while the land returned to wilderness and foxes copulated on their parents’ graves, as the priest of that day thundered from his pulpit. His gruesome fears proved, by God’s mercy, to be greatly exaggerated, thanks to a hostile gradient which even mountain folk found intractable and an absence of commercially extractable mineral resources. A century later, at the coming of the coffee machine, the nearest railway station was still hours away by winding road and the village existed much as it had done since legendary times. The surrounding slopes were coated in virgin oak, uncut by fire lanes. Crested eagles, the last of their species, nested balefully on craggy heights. Hyenas howled at night. Pagan rituals were whispered in forest glades. Ramblers, ornithologists, and election-year politicians who reached the village on a bone-rattling detour from their cardinal occupations marvelled at its remoteness. It was a place where no radio signal was received and a person could sit all afternoon in a beer garden without hearing so much as a cough of internal combustion. “Paradise it is,” sighed the Christian party cheerleader over his frothing beer jug. “The crucible of our civilisation,” agreed the contented Socialist candidate.
The villagers smiled thinly at these pitiful compliments, the perfumed words of city folk who could not milk a goat to save a dying child. What did their paper-white fingers know of the skincracking struggle to hack sustenance from hard rock, their fat bottoms of hoar frost at dawn in a December earth closet? Waiters who replenished their tankards and chambermaids who turned the corners of their eiderdowns knew the cost in quotidian brutality of a picture-postcard charm. They did not ooh and aah at the loveliness of a living thing before it was killed, stripped, and eaten, its bones crushed for manure, its offal fed to the chickens. Paul, stomping through blood pools big as duck ponds in his backyard, warned his staff to mask their contempt for the visitors. Personally, he told them in a low voice, he would cheerfully suffocate townies who drooled at dinner over a dish they had photographed a couple of hours earlier frolicking in the field. Someday, he would frog-march their fat asses into a tour of the slaughterhouse before he admitted their hungry faces to the dining hall. “Good for you, landlord,” chimed an ancient jug washer. “Come the millennium, we’ll choke the parasites with their duck pillows and bury them in a compost heap.”