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Book review: I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin

The surreal madness of Nazism

A TRAPPED NAIF. A young Canadian comes to grips with swirling hatred.

Stephens Gerard Malone’s second novel kicks off with a young lad in Halifax boarding a transatlantic steamer in 1932. His mission to visit an aging grandmother in Germany and ensure that she’s being well cared for by the doctor who shares her Berlin house. Michael is still adjusting to the shock of Berlin’s triple-digit inflation and rampant political thuggery when grandma Nan drops dead at a family party and an inheritance — on condition he stay in Berlin — comes his way.

From the get-go Malone drops clues that Michael is the sensitive sort, a gentle naïf ripe for seduction by the legendary decadence of inter-war Berlin. Sure enough, his granny is barely cold in the family crypt before he finds himself in a smoke-filled cabaret oozing with homage to Bob Fosse — right down to the curtain-raising “drum roll shattered with a cymbal crash.” But Malone quickly gives this floorshow a much darker hue. The Nazi Brown Shirt dance numbers bypass veiled satire and go for outright anti-Jewish brutality, leaving Michael dazed. His new friends (some of them slumming from Paris) lead him dangerously close to the fascist homo realm of Nazi youth wrangler and storm trooper head Ernst Röhm. When Röhm and his gang are executed as traitors by Hitler, Michael gets a firm lesson in what sort of circles he’s been moving in. Then Hitler’s henchmen cut closer to home. Two longtime friends of the family have their young mentally disabled son taken away for compulsory sterilization.

Surrounded by the stampeding German herd mentality of blind nationalism and open contempt for all non-Aryans and “deviants,” Michael is seen to be on a knife edge of split identity. His blond and buff friend Jan, clearly gay but slyly secretive, pulls him in one direction, while fear and the need for security pull him toward everything safe and respectable: marriage, family and gainful employment with an inlaw whose new business is the virtual robbing of property from Jews desperate to sell at any price and leave the country.

Throughout these scenes Berlin’s Jews (some terrified, others in precarious denial) hover steadily at the edges of Malone’s narrative frame, their plight subtly and ominously portrayed. Then we learn that the Jewish doctor-tenant in Michael’s family house, selfless in his caring for Nan before her death, has been told he’s no longer welcome at the hospital. It’s one more prick to Michael’s conscience as he gradually confronts the anti-Semitism instilled in him by family and history.

That richly imagined scenario takes us less than a third of the way into the book. Malone expands the tale into an intricate tapestry of desperation, delusion, cold opportunism, tormented love and betrayal. The quagmire of Nazism and the surreal madness of wartime are portrayed in ghastly and fascinating complexity. At the centre of the maelstrom are Michael and Jan, their stormy love a mix of mutual need and churning self-doubts only exacerbated by the nightmare of life under tyranny.

Malone’s research seems to me impeccable. Period visuals and events are integrated with the story, only rarely reading like a tacked-on display of author’s prowess. A few of the more horrific scenes feel a little too cranked-up, slipping into the shock-schlock realm — but that’s okay. The documented Germany of the time often seems just as terribly unreal.

Malone sometimes has a confusing way with dialogue, alternating conventional quotation-marked chat with brief, condensed portions of conversation not enclosed in quotes. The result is dialogue that misreads as patchwork narration. Malone’s plotting is also overly reliant on coincidence. Characters too often stumble across each other at times and locales that seem far more connected to authorial convenience than the plausible whims of fate. Still, the book satisfies despite these lapses. The larger arc of the story builds to a galloping pace.

We know what happened to queers in Nazi Germany. For his climax Malone takes us to the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin — a living hell for gays and many others. The story’s multiplying coincidences at this point simply stretch belief — but so does the endless brutality, which we know was all too real.