Yesterday I finished reading Ben Pastor’s Lumen, which I highly recommend. I got turned onto Ben Pastor by Fredric Jameson’s recent article on genre in the London Review. I only skimmed Jameson and felt I didn’t want to put the work of understanding into it until I read at least one of the novels he used as a basis for the argument; and I’m very glad I did.
Lumen is set in occupied Poland in 1940. Mother Kazimierza, who is said to perform miracles, is shot dead in the convent garden whilst praying. A German General had just been to see her, there were Polish workmen working in the convent that day, some of which might have been partisans; also, none of the nuns liked her. Yet, no one seems to have a clear motive. The murder of someone many consider a saint is so explosive in a recently occupied Catholic country that Wahrmacht Captain Martin Bora is sent to investigate. He’s a highly educated upper-class Catholic, methodical, disciplined, madly in love with his wife and a lover of music. Father Malecki, a working class American from Chicago of Polish origin, who’d been sent to Cracow by the Vatican to investigate Mother Kazimierza’s miracles, will reluctantly join forces with Bora. The US is still neutral and Malecki is not as vulnerable as all the other locals, religious or not, who are constantly being rounded up on the edges of the narrative.
The Holocaust in process is ever present – Auschwitz is not far – but is kept largely on the margins: Bora is billeted in the former home of a Jewish playwright, Bora and Retz, his heavy-drinking womanizer of a room-mate go shopping for shoes in the Cracow ghetto; a nun of Jewish origin gets carted off on Christmas day…and so on.
Bora is solving a crime, he is making judgments and attributing guilt in a context where all of these things are constantly being muddied up, shifting, where training, loyalties and reason confront ethics and morality; where military hierarchies, precedent and law rub up against justice. The furnaces of Auschwitz are burning, a people are illegally occupied, the SS are reported by Bora to be breaking international conventions, the Russians are committing more atrocities on shared front lines. What are justice, guilt, conscience, morality and ethics in this context? Indeed, when is a crime a crime?
A brilliant detective novel, which I’m perhaps making seem more grim than it reads. The plot is so taut and the writing so efficient that one is completely immersed in the characters and the crime. I’m now on the second one.
Ben Pastor is the pseudonym of Maria Verbena Volpi, which adds yet another interesting twist.