The Year Is ’42 by Nella Bielski


The Nazi occupation of Paris during World War Two: Karl Bazinger, an urbane, well-travelled 48-year old German army officer, treats his time in the French capital as a sort of cultural exchange rather than an invasion. He is too busy conducting an affair and holding court in various languages at fashionable salons to worry about the war – but the war must surely intervene. Meanwhile his neighbour from home, Hans Bielenberg, is not quite so sanguine: from his perch in the Luftwaffe, he questions the conduct of the war more directly than Bazinger, and is prepared to do something about it. He is a traitor, and the Third Reich has its own medieval ways of dealing with people like that. There is a third strand to Nella Bielski’s strange, sometimes dreamy, story: Katia Zvesdny, a doctor in German-occupied Ukraine, does not appear to provide a link but… In all, this unusual tale has something of Laurent Binet’s HHhH about it – the assassination of the ‘blond beast’ Heydrich (architect of the Final Solution) is even referenced. Katia’s friends, neighbours and relatives are summoned to take part in a census at Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev. There, with appalling efficiency, the SS murder 34,000 Jews over two days in September 1941. As Binet reminds us, many would not have realised what was about to happen until they reached the ditch’s edge and looked over. ‘Shooting Jews is his job, his duty,’ one character explains in The Year Is ’42, matter of factly. But of course. And as we learn on a jolting plane trip over the forests of Belarus, this close quarters mass slaughter has a deleterious psychological effect on the SS men who carry it out. How fortunate for them that clever chemical engineers are even now working on a less personal way of doing it, which involves poison gas. Truly, science is a wonder. When things fall apart, the novel suggests, it may be a good rule of thumb to ask yourself what future observers will make of the times you are living in, and attempt to manoeuvre yourself onto the right side of history. Easy enough until you are actually called upon to do it, perhaps.



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