The Constant Soldier | William Ryan | 2016, Pb 2017 | Mantle | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1944 and soldier Paul Brandt has returned home to Germany from the Eastern Front. He is not the man he was before and not just physically. Brandt’s obvious life-changing wounds only hint at the deeper psychological damage and shame that the war in Russia has left him with. His home village isn’t what it was either. It lives under the shadow of a luxurious hut where the SS officers from the nearby concentration camp get their R&R. Waited on hand and foot, they are in need of a steward and Brandt, no longer any other use to the army, is perfect for the task. Not that Brandt wants the job but on his return to the village he glimpsed one of the hut’s female slaves, still somehow clinging on to life, and he recognised her in an instant.
Meanwhile, the Russian front is coming closer and helping to push it on is a young Russian woman, a tank driver.
The Constant Soldier is an immensely powerful, emotionally charged, beautifully written novel. In these final months of the Second World War, we’re shown the impact of five years of war, and longer of fascism, on a small community that knows only too well what will happen when the Russians finally arrive. The village itself is depleted of everyone Brandt used to know who has been judged deviant by the Reich, while in the hut we see men perhaps crazed by power, others shamed by spending their war here and not fighting elsewhere. And watching closely are the female prisoners imprisoned in the bunker, let out only to slave for their masters, the hut reminding us all of what is happening in the nearby concentration camp.
The novel moves between Brandt and the others in the hut. Brandt’s feelings are easier for us to empathise with but there are portraits of other men here that are absolutely – and horrifyingly – fascinating. The commander Neumann in particular is so well painted. It’s a portrait of a man who almost knows how evil he has become and who is consciously trying to be normal – sometimes – and yet we are reminded of the personal cost he has paid. There’s no question that we sympathise with him, that would be impossible, but his character is complex and he’s hard to forget.
There are multiple tragedies in The Constant Soldier. This war, the Reich, has done its work and now the young and the old must pay the price as the Russian tanks approach and so few are left to defend the village. The focus is on a small community but we are given glimpses of the wider war through the characters’ memories. The concentration camp, though, reproaches from the shadows, barely referred to but always there.
The female prisoners are central to the story and all men are judged by how they behave to them. We are given insights into the women’s thoughts but only comparatively rarely. This is a cold, dark place. There are moments here that might make you cry, especially one moment in particular.
The Russian woman in the tank is an interesting figure, giving us a glimpse into the Russian army that we might be unfamiliar with. These sections add to the tension of the novel as the harsh early months of 1945 freeze the ground and I really enjoyed them.
The Constant Soldier is a novel in which thoughts and fears must often be silenced, kept hidden, with character slowly explored and revealed in its true nature, but during the final third of the novel there is a strong sense of all hell being let loose and these chapters are very tense indeed. While William Ryan takes us into very dark and sometimes distressing territory, there are glimpses of hope – the war will end.