It’s 1920 and two baby boys are born in Berlin. Paulus and Otto are brothers, the twin sons of devoted and happy parents Frieda Stengel, a doctor, and her musician husband Wolfgang. As they grow, the two boys share everything in common except for one thing – blood. While this doesn’t matter in the least to their family, as the years go by it starts to matter very much indeed. This is because on the same night that the boys are born, another life screams into existence in Berlin, the National Socialist German Workers Party, and Frieda and Wolfgang are Jewish. Over the next twenty years, each covered in compelling and heart wrenching detail in this fine novel, we watch as their human rights are eroded one by one until, finally, the brothers have to use all their wits to survive.
This isn’t just the tale of Otto and Paulus, though. Two Brothers is an immensely rich and captivating portrayal of the lives of many of the family’s friends, relatives and colleagues, some Jewish, some not Jewish, but all compelled to play a part in the Nazi hell that is consuming their country and city. The stories of Otto and Paulus are entwined completely with those of two girls: Silke, a Christian, who fantasises about a Communist future, and Dagmar Fischer, the rich Jewish girl who of them all has the furthest distance to fall. The four children form the Saturday Club. As they grow into teenagers and young adults, this Club takes on a whole new significance and the ties between them become lifelines. One of the strongest ties is that of love. Dagmar is the boys’ obsession but while they each fight for her, driven to protect her, she is battered by the Nazi oppression, hammered by it, despite the determination and strength that she projects to the world.
The danger and suffering that these four must endure, the danger and suffering that their parents and families must endure, all borne with heart and courage, often rage, sometimes despair, even occasionally humour, it drives this novel on. It becomes a tour de force, irresistible to put down and immensely rewarding for the emotions that each page brings.
Years ago I remember reading Ben Elton’s novels (particularly Stark and Gridlock) while both enjoying and being irritated by his stand-up humour during those hard years in the 1980s. Any doubts as to the pathos and tragedy that Ben Elton can instil into his humour were dispelled by Blackadder. Those same qualities are perfected in Two Brothers. Ben Elton has always been loud and a strand of that can be detected in this novel in its rare melodramatic scenes. But, without doubt, those moments, and they are few and far between, are the only minor failings in this wonderful book.
Ben Elton is a great creator of scenes. Two Brothers is alive with its locations and situations, from Berlin in the 1930s to London in the 1950s. Berlin itself is fascinatingly evoked and within that picture are specific set pieces which both appal and mesmerise. These are the key moments that define the people that Otto, Paulus, Dagmar and Silke become. I was particularly gripped by the characters of Frieda and Wolfgang. These two people emerged from the horrendous Great War in love and with their lives in front of them. They suffer the fallout of the War, the violence, deprivation and poverty, and never lose hope. But they could never have expected or believed what was to come. The disbelief of it all, this is captured so well here. The Saturday Club know little else but the older generations have to cope with coming to terms with the unimaginable. There are many human tragedies and triumphs here.
Reading Two Brothers was an enthralling, painful, emotional and glorious experience. It makes no pretences. Info dumps are avoided, instead the history is revealed through the novel’s stories and people, in the most involving way, bringing the history to life. Have no doubt, though. This book is full of historical details and is steeped in atmosphere. The story of the two brothers is remarkable – it’s the stuff of TV drama – and it’s possible that such events could never have happened but how you believe it!
I read Two Brothers in two days and I’ll read it again. Without doubt, one of my very favourite novels of the year.