Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: The Traitor's Emblem by Juan Gomez-Jurado

A novel of revenge, betrayal, and love in the manner of Alexandre Dumas.

Paul Reiner and his mother, Ilse, live in Baron von Schroeder’s home in Munich as servants. Ilse is the Baroness Brunhilda’s sister and the Reiner’s are dependent on Brunhilda’s generosity, what little there is of it. There is little of the baron’s fortune left in the wake of his gambling and that does not change the way Paul’s cousin Jürgen treats Ilse and Paul. Jürgen is a petty tyrant and a coward and vents his arrogant sadism on Paul for no other reason than Paul exists. That changes with time and the revelation that Paul and Jürgen’s relationship is closer than cousins.

As time goes on and Paul and Ilse are thrown out of the mansion, they struggle to survive and, with Paul’s intelligence and ingenuity, prosper in the wake of Germany’s struggle to survive after the Versailles Treaty’s onerous provisions. All Paul wants is to find out what happened to his father Hans and why he was branded a deserter and the facts of his death obscured. Paul will get his chance, but it will cost him dearly.

In the author’s notes, Juan Gómez-Jurado explains that the story of The Traitor’s Emblem is different from what he initially planned and is based upon a story a man told him about a relic from the Hitler, a profane object with which Gómez-Jurado begins and ends the novel, a piece known as the Traitor’s Emblem, long thought to be a myth. While the story surrounding the relic is fascinating, Gómez-Jurado is correct in believing it is not enough to hold the novel together. He does construct a plausible scenario for the main characters and much of it is believable. Unfortunately, the story falls apart in some areas.

Without giving too much away, the circumstances surrounding the breakout from Dachau fails to provide the slimmest glimmer of evidence as to why the Nazis suddenly took up the chase. From all accounts, the imposters had gotten away with their ruse and were driving away when alarms go off, lights flash on, and gunshots riddle the getaway car. After having come so far with success, there is no reason for the camp to erupt and the Nazis to give chase. It makes for an exciting getaway, but seems too convenient and implausible.

The other issues surround a man Paul spends eleven years tracking, the man, Nagel, one of Hans’s confederates, runs for his life, which makes no sense. Paul supposedly has information Nagel needs and Nagel has no reason to suspect Paul plans to kill him. Once again, a nice bit of drama without a plausible reason. Paul wants information, as does Nagel, and Nagel keeps running away, abandoning one profitable business after another to end up back in Germany after a long fruitless chase through South West Africa. The whole piece of business is too pat, although it does put the players in the right place at the right time, and so conveniently plotted. There is also the hint that Nagel was the murderer and not Hans and this fact, thrown out as part of Nagel’s internal monologue, was not cleared up or mentioned again.

Despite the flaws in the story, The Traitor’s Emblem is an intricate tale of revenge, betrayal, love, and the chaotic political scene of Germany in the years between the end of World War I and the rise of Adolf Hitler to power before World War II. The details of life in Munich and the struggles of the German people under the lash of the Versailles Treaty are intimately drawn and provide a dark backdrop for the more personal tragedy between Paul and Jürgen.

Gómez-Jurado has written a page turner with strong adventure elements that is mostly satisfying and exciting. The pluses substantially outweigh the flaws even though the novel should have been longer to do justice to the story and the characters.

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