A useful maxim for reviewers would be one that encouraged them to relate art to life rather than art to art, or fiction to fiction. In two respects, unfortunately, Fatherland by Robert Harris makes artistic comparisons inescapable. It belongs, first, to that select genre of fiction which deals in the Alternative Present, or in this case an alternative recent past. It is set in 1964 in the vast, imperial, intimidating Berlin of an undefeated Third Reich. The dome of Albert Speer's Volkshalle, nearly a thousand feet high, is lost in the clouds. Below, the earthlings prepare to celebrate Adolf Hitler's 75th birthday and try to adjust to the news that, after two decades of Cold War, détente with the United States of America is suddenly a possibility. The aged President Kennedy (Joseph P., not John F.) plans to fly to Berlin for a summit meeting. Since all this is conjecture as to how things might have turned out, it can only be assessed against your own, or other people's, conjectures. The two best-known novels based on the premise of a German or Axis victory are Len Deighton's SS GB and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. I can remember two no less interesting television variations on the theme: Giles Cooper's epic play The Other Man, and a serial by Philip Mackie, An Englishman's Castle.
LRB 6 August 1992 | PDF Download