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Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard

When you start off any review, it’s as well to talk about the elephant in the room first. This clears the air. Not that elephants regularly pollute the atmosphere with foul gasses, you understand, but we need to keep a proper sense of proportion so we can see past the beast to the “real” issues. Voices of the Dead (The Story Plant, 2012) begins with an introduction from the father about his son. This is Peter Leonard‘s fourth novel. His father, Elmore Leonard, has been writing for slightly longer and has managed to build up quite a name for himself. I think he’s published forty-nine novels — I always have trouble counting over ten when I run out of fingers — and has written screenplays for both cinema and television. So here comes a simple truth. Peter is not his father. On the evidence of this book, he’s a talented writer on the merits. Perhaps more importantly, he’s neither ashamed nor intimidated by admitting the relationship. This distinguishes writers like Joe Hill who start off their careers without broadcasting the identities of their more famous parents.

The book begins in what feels a conventional way but, after a few more pages it becomes obvious this not a book like any written by Elmore. It’s altogether darker with sensibilities that would not sit comfortably in a genre western or suspense-oriented thriller. In dealing with the Holocaust, an issue in history that tends to raise emotions, Peter Leonard is taking a risk. Our protagonist is called Harry Levin. He’s a survivor, but not because he was strong. At the age of thirteen, he was left for dead, buried in a mass grave. The action starts in 1971. This keeps the ages of those involved credible for the decisions on flight or fight. The catalyst is the death of Harry’s daughter in a traffic accident. The driver was hopelessly drunk but has diplomatic immunity, which triggers Harry’s desire for revenge. Except the moral nature of this desire changes when the identities of those involved are revealed.

In theory, the passage of time gives us a better perspective on the events of the past. When an author has no direct experience to draw on, he must imagine how it felt to be a survivor. It should provide a way of presenting the trauma in a more objective way. So Peter Leonard gives us a fairly straight description of how Harry escaped death and subsequently left Germany. There’s little commentary and the emotional content is kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, the modern reader comes with a complex set of emotional responses to the Holocaust. Today, there’s more silence on the subject, yet this lack of voices can be as loud as speaking when we consider the status of Jews in societies around the world and view the difficulties faced by Israel. In the period immediately after WWII, the discourse was full of condemnation and the politics of revenge. Some believe the establishment of the state of Israel was, in itself, an act of revenge against the state of Germany. The din death squads were active until 1960 and the trial of war criminals has continued into this century, most recently in 2009 with the case of Heinrich Boere, a former SS member charged with three murders.

Peter Leonard turns his back on books

Thematically, we are in the same territory as The Iron Tracks by Aharon Appelfeld in which Erwin Siegelbaum murders the camp commandant, Colonel Nachtigel, who killed his parents. This brings him no peace of mind. Murder is hardly the most noble of human actions and it’s rarely rewarded with salvation when the motive is revenge. Ironically, it may be easier to kill a man if you see him as a monster, but this process to dehumanise an individual Nazi is what the Nazis did on a national scale to Jews as a justification for their extermination. In a way, this captures the problem for Peter Leonard. If Voices of the Dead had been written in the 1970s, it would have been sufficient that the son was resuming his acquaintance with the man who killed his father. As it is, even though he’s set the story in the past, the modern reader might not approve revenge based purely on what happened during the war. To us, this is old history. Peter Leonard therefore makes his unrepentant Nazi continue life as a serial killer (and a drunk driver), i.e. if anything he’s become even more monstrous with the passage of time. There’s then a further change to defuse the scale of the moral decisions Harry must take on his journey. His initial attempt to kill is frustrated. This produces what we may term a cooling-off period. There’s a chance for all interested parties to reflect and pull back from the precipice. What happens after this is slightly more mainstream.

I have a slight problem with the characterisation of Harry. The German language is inevitably linked to the experiences of his childhood. It’s also the language of those who took the family to the camps and murdered his father. This should taint the language in the ears of the child, raising an emotional question mark over its use. Coming to America, Harry solves the problem by learning a new language in which he can distance himself from his memories. Over time, the fear and anger subsides, and he remembers the happier moments with his parents before the war and, less frequently, immediately before the family is taken. Yet in 1971, he seems able to drop back into German without hesitation. Further, although there are minor resonances when he actually returns to Germany and visits the scenes of his past, there’s little sense of any underlying trauma. In this, I think the novel somewhat pulls its punches.

Overall, the choice of the Holocaust as the main theme may mean some readers will be deterred from reading it. This would be a shame because Voices of the Dead is beautifully written and relatively dispassionate in its handling of difficult issues. It may not deal with the complexity of the moral issues but, in its silences, it does speak powerfully about the past and how we should react to it.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. February 15, 2012 at 5:02 am

    How long has this book been out for, I haven’t yet heard about it. Do you know where I can purchase it?

    • February 15, 2012 at 9:58 am

      Paperback ISBN: 978-1-61188-032-8 * E-book ISBN: 978-1-61188-033-5
      Publication Date: January 17, 2012 * 310 pages
      Trade Paperback Price: $16.95 * E-book price: $3.99
      Buy the book at: Amazon * Barnes & Noble * Apple * Chapters/Indigo

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