Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
Maps were found not just on map
tables at headquarters during the Second World War, but in barracks, factory
canteens and even on the walls of domestic kitchens.
and civilians followed the ebb and flow of war, men on the front line planned
the best routes for advance, identified forests in which they could disguise
their sorties and marked their weak points that might be attacked by their
enemies. The map has not been made yet, though, which does have one advantage:
the map is not the territory. Map distances that seem only inches in London or
centimetres in Berlin might be not just days long [in travel terms], but weeks
or even months for the soldier. That travel will become worse, of course, as
supply lines become stretched. A kubelwagon could go many kilometres on a
tankful of fuel, but would then have to stop to refill, or worse wait for the
tankers to catch up.
is only recently that fiction has started to catch up with the distances over
which the Nazi forces advanced into the east [Philip Kerr's A Man Without Breath (2013) is one of
Pasternak's Death Zones is set in
that enormous unmapped space, where, Oberleutnant Heinrich Hoffman wishes he
were somewhere else. Kerr’s anti-hero Bernie Gunther had been sent with the
imprimatur of Reichsminister Goebbels, but Hoffman is a junior officer with
superiors riding his back, and his nose being forced deeper and deeper into the
moral morass of anti-partisan fighting. The cruelty of the army's behaviour to
the local peasantry is bad enough to bear on any ordinary day; when the cruelty
starts to ramp up, Hoffman begins to wonder why.
has a girlfriend back in Hamburg to whom he starts to write – but never
completes – letters that should be outpourings of unconditional love, but start
to fill with explications of his moral doubts. These are letters he recognises
would not pass the army censor, let alone any other official eye should they
reach Germany. Despite his doubts Hoffman begins to play policeman, tracking down
a mastermind partisan who has been imitating his own double, only to start
wondering if all is as it seems. That the superior office who drives him on is
not only hisschool-friend but his future brother-in-law makes his agony worse.
There are torture scenes but at the worse one (it echoes Mason Verger's
intention for Hannibal Lecter) Hoffman learns a code word, which leads him back
to Hamburg, having realised the duplicity of his superior and friend. Hoffman's
own journey requires him to become compromised, a killer travelling under an
assumed identity, before the city opens its true corrupt heart to him.
readers will object to the emphasis placed on violence throughout the book;
others may not like the abrupt short-sentences, fragments of conversation, and
sections without description, though these do give an idea of the separation of
place which allows so much villainy to fester. Simon Pasternak wrote this novel
in Danish, and it may appeal to a more continental consciousness: for example,
Hoffman is obsessed by the likeness of his girlfriend Eline to the actress
Zarah Leander, which echoes Hitchcock's Vertigo
and its blonde double, unfortunately Zarah Leander is not well known to English
readers (though Swedish, she worked for Goebbel's UFA film studio, a connection
to her disadvantage) and so we miss that historical connection to reinforce our
identity with Hoffman.
of the characters with whom Hoffman has to work were real, one of them Oskar
Dirlewanger, leader of a sonder (special) unit, a truly horrible man, to whom
justice was done in the last days of the War. Using real people, though, brings
another problem – the records, diaries and letters of these people all seem to
record them having the time of their lives. Ernst Klee collected some of these
in Germany, available in translation as 'The Good Old Days' or 'Those Were The
Days': the original German title 'Schoene Zeiten' was found on a commander's
photo album went he was finally caught in the 1950s. So, as Simon Pasternak has
done, to cast a man with morals into this world is a major effort of fiction;
whether it is worth it, though, is another matter.