Monday, August 02, 2010


There are books that at first glance look to be a long read, but when you start the interesting characters, and the wit and wisdom carry the reader speedily through to the end, and even wanting more.
The Woman from Bratislava, a political thriller by Danish journalist and author Leif Davidsen, translated by Barbara J. Haveland, was just such a book.
This was the Danish contribution to my Scandinavian Reading Challenge plus Denmark and Finland. Written in 2001, and set in 1999, at the time of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia it has taken nearly a decade to reach an English readership.

The book is divided into four parts.

Part one concentrates on Theodor Nikolaj Pedersen, "Teddy", an academic who having come up with the thesis that "The Soviet Union would enter the next millenium fortified and reinforced" was no longer flavour of the month, and the object of derision by his colleagues. In Bratislava on a cultural tour of Eastern Europe he meets a woman who claims to be his half-sister, telling him a story about his real father.

Teddy has the endearing habit of viewing his life as a series of pictures.

Teddy's World Falls Apart this picture might have been called. Cracks starting to Appear in Teddy's Life would have also have made an excellent title for this still life,

Returning to Denmark early because of lumbago, and toothache, he finds his sister Irma has been arrested as a spy, his wife has left him, and he is taken to see a museum dedicated to those Danes who fought on the Eastern Front for the Germans.

'The stone was erected on Christian Frederick von Schalburg's birthday. We felt that was rather fitting. He was a brave soldier and a good Dane.'
'And a fucking Nazi and an anti-Semite,' I burst out, but his voice did not falter:
'Yes , and so was I , but that's all in the past.
Nazism died in a bunker in Berlin in 1945.'

Part two returns to the characters who featured in The Serbian Dane as Jytte Vuldom, head of the Danish Secret Service, recruits Per Toftlund, now married to Lise, who is expecting their baby, to travel into Eastern Europe on a mission.
A NATO stealth fighter has been shot down by the Serbs, something that should be impossible, and Per has the task of obtaining information about Edelweiss, a spy for the GDR's Stasi for many years, who may still be working for the Russians, or Serbs, or ......
Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have just joined NATO, and while Per is in Poland Colonel Gelbert, a security official, informs Per about a meeting with his Russian counterpart, who told him.

"It's nice talking to you , Colonel Gelbert. Might I ask you to remember that when a lion is sick even a monkey can beat the shit out of it. But what happens to the monkey on the day when the lion is back on its feet?" It was an elegantly worded threat, but a threat nonetheless.

Part three is in the form of a letter written by Teddy's sister Irma, held in solitary confinement, to her half sister, Maria or Mira, in which she relates the story of how her father went off to fight the heathen Communists with the Danish SS at the time enjoying the tacit approval of the Danish government and people. While stationed in Croatia he fathered Maria. On their return to Denmark the soldiers had been branded as traitors, and she writes movingly of the 1952 shooting party incident as the family's comfortable life is ruined, when her father is identified by a former resistance leader.

But what I remembered most clearly about our home was that those who were constantly being hailed as heroes were regarded, in our family, as villains who had not understood the necessity of shaping a new Europe under the leadership of Germany.

Irma and Fritz, Teddy's older brother believe in the rehabilitation of the reputation of those Danish troops who fought for against communism.
Irma has some other contrasting ideas at one time writing:

"In the Peasant and Worker State of the GDR they have succeeded, despite the machinations of Imperialism, in producing both an industrial miracle and an equality between the sexes and the classes which does not exist in late-capitalist West Germany."................

How in hell's name does a woman like you get to be a university professor with responsibility for educating future generations?

The problem in the West is that we have had generations of young people educated by people who support various forms of totalitarianism.

In the final part of the book Per and Teddy go to Albania searching for Teddy's half sister, and the ending is as confused as the world of international crime and espionage.

I had an image of Denmark's glorious resistance to the Nazis based on the fact that 90% of Danish Jews were saved form the Holocaust, and to learn that more Danes died fighting for Germany than against them was a little bit of a shock. But there is no doubt that if Britain had been occupied there would have been numerous collaborators willing to fight Communism and eliminate Jews, and so I admire Leif Davidsen's honesty for writing this book.

Understanding the history of Europe is so important, but I get the impression that our current politicians know about as much about countries a long way away as Neville Chamberlain did in 1938 before Munich, or perhaps even less.

'In Croatia, even under Tito, not everyone regarded the Germans and the Ustashi as fascists. To many people they were patriots, fighting for a free Croatia. For the Croatian nation and its culture.'

The states of Eastern Europe went from rule by autocratic empires, to fascist states run by brutish thugs, and then on to decades of oppressive communism.
It is surely important that we learn everything we can about countries whose citizens, because of European Union membership, will have full rights of access to our green and pleasant land.

The Woman from Bratislava is a long sprawling, sometimes rambling book full of anecdotes, history, politics and wit, and I can highly recommend it.

Reviews of Leif Davidsen's earlier political thrillers, The Sardine Deception and The Serbian Dane.


Blogger Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Norman your review just make me wish to read this book. Thanks.

4:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman - Thanks for this excellent review! I haven't read this one yet, but I am most eager to; your review has only made me more interested in it.

5:19 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks very much Margot, and Jose Ignacio. I have really enjoyed the three Leif Davidsen books I have read, and am surprised that they haven't been translated years ago.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Dorte H said...

With your review and Maxine´s I can see I´ll have to try this one one day. It is just that the last Davidsen I tried was so poorly written that I threw it away in disgust after 50 pages. The main character droned on and on about Papa Hemingway in a horrible tell, don´t show fashion until I just couldn´t take any more. So actually I can understand that English publishers choose some of them, but not all of his rather uneven production.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Bernadette said...

What a marvellous review. Thanks. I enjoyed THE SERBIAN DANE and I will definitely add this to my wishlist.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Dorte I hope that wasn't Lime's Photograph [Nordic Glass Key winner] that I have on my TBR pile. :0(

2:04 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks so much Bernadette. Praise from bloggers who opinions I respect is worth far more than awards from organizations trying to sell fake internet PhDs. ;o)

2:08 AM  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Oh no, I read Lime´s Photograph several years ago, and I remember it as a very entertaining story.

3:43 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Dorte.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Sorry I did not comment on this post, Norman. It came out while I was on holiday with a very limited internet connection - actually I wanted to get a break from everything so did not look at blogs very much even when I did have the internet.

I love your review. This book was certainly unfocused, but parts of it were very compelling. I thought the end was weak after all that had gone before, but I am glad I read it. And the author's heart is in the right place. It was confusing in parts, especially about the identity of the person writing the memoirs. Or maybe I'm just getting senile.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Maxine. If you are getting senile what does that make me positively archaeological.
I did enjoy this book and pleased you liked my review, but can understand why you wanted to relax and read on holiday.

9:41 AM  

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