This novel is narrated from the perspective of three characters. From the first person point of view, we get the story of Marijke de Graaf, a member of the Dutch resistance, who, along with her husband, is captured by the Germans. She chooses to work in a brothel servicing prisoners in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp because she believes her husband has been interred at that camp. Then we meet Karl Müller, an SS officer, who encounters Marijke and ends up regularly seeking her company as a respite from his duties as the second-in-command at Buchenwald. The third character lives in a different place and time: Argentina in 1977. Luciano Wagner, a journalism student, is arrested and becomes one of “the disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War.
As one would expect given the settings, the subject matter is heavy. Both Marijke and Luciano want to resist becoming collaborators but also want to survive. Can they be forgiven their choices? Can Karl be forgiven his activities on behalf of the Reich? The reader sees the extremes of human beings’ capacity for evil, and the descriptions of prisoner torture are sometimes graphic.
The author seems to have done considerable research. I had read about comfort women, women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II, but I was unaware that the Germans had brothels for non-Jewish prisoners as a reward for productivity and to create an incentive to collaborate. Likewise, I knew little about the treatment of political dissidents during Argentina’s Dirty War.
There are interesting parallels among the characters and their situations. For example, Karl keeps trying to live up to his father’s expectations of wartime glory and Luciano struggles to get the affection of his cold, aloof father. Marijke describes Karl as someone “trying to be two men at once” just as she sees herself as conflicted too: “I’d always taken pride in being sensible and loyal, so who was this stranger who’d betray all that for something as primal as desire” (205)? Homosexuals are targeted in both places. And then there’s the semblance of ordinary life found in both prisons: Luciano asks “But I don’t get how these officers live on the floor below us. Some have their wives and children with them. It just doesn’t – how can they go about their daily lives knowing what surrounds them? . . . How can anyone eat steak and drink Champagne while we starve overhead in soiled clothes?” (126 – 127). In Buchenwald, SS officers live in villas along with their wives and children, and while the inmates starve, Karl has his own cook and attends the Kommandant’s cocktail parties and meals where food and drink are found in abundance.
Some readers have questioned the realism of the epilogue, but I have more of an issue with the ending of Marijke’s story. Given the timeline, her ability to keep the secret from Theo does not seem credible. Her desire to remain silent is perfectly understandable, especially after she sees the fate of the moffenhoer (373), but could she really continue her deception? Initially, I questioned the ending of Luciano’s narrative, but some cursory research indicated that what is described did indeed often happen.
The dust jacket describes the book as “a novel about love” but it is certainly not a romance. It is more about love versus lust, love of country, and filial love. It touches on homosexual love. It also asks what love can forgive. And in some ways, the book serves as a warning: this is what can happen when governments foster discrimination and curb opposition.