Leif Davidsen, The Woman from Bratislava, trans. from the Danish by Barbara J. Haveland (London: Arcadia Books 2010 ). An ambitious thriller that explores the legacy of the Second World War, but doesn’t quite live up to its early promise. 3 stars
Opening sentence: It was a story often used by security-cleared lecturers in the civilian branch of FET, by serving officers of a certain rank and other trusted members of PET when briefing new volunteers on the special conditions under which the secret services had to operate in a post-communist world.
As I’ve noted in a previous post, Davidsen has been described as ‘one of Denmark’s top crime writers’ (The Sunday Times). As a former journalist specializing in Russian and Eastern European affairs, he tends to use the crime/thriller format to explore larger political and historical issues – in the case of The Woman from Bratislava, the legacy of the Second World War, set against the backdrop of the Bosnian War and the collapse of communism in the 1990s.
More specifically, the novel uses the story of a rather unusual family as a means of approaching the complex history of Danish involvement in the Second World War. In the post-communist Bratislava of 1999, middle-aged Danish lecturer Teddy Pedersen is approached by Mira, an Eastern European woman who claims to be his half-sister. She reveals that their Danish father, a former Waffen-SS officer, had not died in 1952 as Teddy had been led to believe, but had gone on to lead a secret second life in Yugoslavia. Shortly afterwards, Teddy’s Danish sister Irma is arrested on suspicion of being a former Stasi (East German) agent, one who has possible links to ‘the woman from Bratislava’. The novel explores the father’s influence on the political development of both sisters – and via them the lingering legacy of fascism in post-war Europe. If you haven’t spotted it already, Irma and Mira are anagrams of one another, which I *think* is supposed to indicate how inextricably intertwined their fates are. Or something profound, at any rate.
This is a very ambitious novel, but one that I felt over-reached itself in places. Davidsen chooses to focus on an extremely controversial bit of Denmark’s wartime past, namely the role of thousands of Danes who fought for the Nazis as members of the Danish Legion and Waffen-SS. The author attempts to provide a 360-degree examination of this historical moment, highlighting on the one hand the war-crimes committed by these young Danes in the service of Nazi ideology, and on the other, the hypocrisy of the Danish government, who in 1941 ‘blessed’ their departure for war, only to treat them as ‘pariahs and outcasts’ when Germany was defeated in 1945 (p.100). (Denmark is shown white-washing its wartime history, recasting its years of occupation by the Germans as a period of heroic resistance, and developing a strategic amnesia to cover the less savory aspects of that past).
In some respects, I admire Davidsen’s bravery in taking on such a controversial subject, and in trying to provide a rounded discussion of how these ‘Nazi Danes’ should be viewed. But at times, I felt that the exploration of their actions needed to be more nuanced, and I wasn’t able to follow the reasons why certain individuals felt moved to defend the Waffen-SS father, or to consider his post-war treatment unjust. It’s possible that Davidsen is trying to critique these characters’ blindness to the father’s criminal wartime activities (a form of misguided love or loyalty), but I’m not entirely convinced that this is the case. At certain points, there’s also a casual, problematic elision of fascism and communism, which rather confusingly leads communist characters to exhibit fascist sympathies and/or sympathy for fascists.
As if all of this were not enough, there’s an overarching thriller/espionage plotline involving the downing of a NATO fighter plane over Yugoslavia, which ends in a (for me largely incomprehensible) twist. It was all a bit too much for this simple reader.
Summary: There’s much to admire about the ambition and scope of this thriller, but its constituent parts do not add up to a satisfactory whole. It may be best suited for readers with an interest in the legacy of the Second World War and the Cold War.
Mrs. Peabody awards The Woman from Bratislavia a rather wobbly 3 stars.