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FICTION The Passenger

Sense of dread pervades desperate story of Jewish businessman on the run in Nazi Germany

FICTIONAL treatments of historical atrocities are fraught with moral and artistic jeopardy. If readers may be deterred by graphically distressing subject matter, authors tend to make tragedy tolerable by embedding it in familiar forms of storytelling.

The problem is that genres such as thrillers, love stories and family sagas can distort horrific events or, even worse, trivialise them.

This is particularly true of the lethal persecution of Jewish people that began in 1938 with the Nazis’ instigation of the Kristallnacht pogrom.

In spite of these pitfalls, Hitler’s attempt to dehumanise and exterminate German Jews inspired two gripping and prophetic novels.

One was Kressmann Taylor’s slender but clever epistolary novel, Address Unknown. The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz is the other.

It has the dramatic tension of a Hitchcock thriller and the claustrophobic paranoia of Kafka. Its psychologically flawed central character is so vividly realised he might have wandered into Boschwitz’s story from the pages of Dostoevsky.

But the balance between the pell-mell plot and the carefully crafted revelations of a society murderously at odds with itself are unique to Boschwitz. His writing is controlled, vivid and crammed with psychological insight.

We will never know the direction his writing would have taken in the wake of this, his second novel, because in 1942 the ship returning him to Britain from internment in Australia was torpedoed by a German submarine. He drowned at the age of 27.

Boschwitz’s legacy is the gripping tale of Otto Silbermann, a wealthy Jewish businessman on the run from racial violence, whose world is thrown into chaos in the opening chapter.

As the plot unfolds, he is stripped of his belongings, home, friendships and, most chillingly, his sense of identity.

A tale of mounting panic and despair is related through his stream of consciousness.

Early in the story, he is able to draw on his commercial guile to plan opportunities for escape but his self-belief is gradually eroded by the hatred and rejection of his fellow citizens.

In a clumsier story, the suffering of the viewpoint character would have imbued him with virtue by proxy but, obsessed with status and prone to adulterous thoughts, Silbermann is indifferent to the suffering of others.

The narrative is a sequence of revelatory flashes through a series of public encounters with railway staff, passengers, police officers, fugitives and members of the Nazi party.

The “travelogue” structure is blatantly but brilliantly contrived, perfect for the depiction of a society that has lost its moral compass and its reason.

Published by Pushkin Press, £14.99.

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