Tom Keneally’s Corporal Hitler’s Pistol Review – An Exciting Historical Thriller | Books
WHen Tom Keneally chose Corporal Hitler’s pistol-loaded title, he would have been well aware of Chekhov’s advice to writers that if a gun appears in the first act, it should be fired in the second. Indeed, he shoots his fictional pistol several times for dramatic effect in his 35th novel, a fascinating blend of historical crime thriller and intricate portrayal of a rural Australian community.
The weapon has been lurking in Keneally’s imagination since the first act of his own life. Her father, who served in the Middle East during WWII, sent home memorabilia, including a German Luger holster (not the pistol itself), which Keneally can always show visitors.
Nazi Germany and the World Wars inspired many of his rich tales, including the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Arch. Corporal Hitler’s pistol is found in the unstable peace between the wars, when post-traumatic pain collided with the Great Depression and escalating tensions. The Japanese occupation of Manchuria leads a young man to speculate: “I hope I’m wrong. But could we witness the opening of a Second Great War? “
The action is set in 1933, two years before Keneally was born, in the town of Kempsey on the north coast of New South Wales, where he spent his early childhood. He is inspired by experience and folklore, like an old German-Australian who owned a pistol that belonged to Hitler.
His familiarity with the city makes Kempsey crackle with commerce, gossip, and class divisions from the very first pages. Wealthy Flo Honeywood walks the streets, spots other characters, and prepares to confront her husband, the respected master builder, over an Aboriginal boy from the camp outside of town who looks like him.
Always a first-rate storyteller of a traditional genre, Keneally displays his mastery of the narrative technique in a series of cinematic sets that propel the story while intimately developing the characters. Some take place at the Victoria Theater, the hub of social life, where Hollywood movies add glamor and dreams to ordinary lives.
Young Gertie Webber speaks with the exaggeration of an actor, and her brother Christian imagines dressing his mother “like Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express”. The Victoria simmers with the repressed eroticism of the novel. At a screening of Tabu, “Harper Quinlan, the projectionist, said you could hear the boys’ fly buttons popping all over the theater.”
Chicken Dalton, the “effeminate and stylish” pianist who accompanies the Saturday night images, is the most theatrical of a living ensemble. It sounds like a Dickensian dandy but is based on a true resident of the time and represents Keneally’s tribute to the gay men of his youth.
“Kempsey’s Thought” finds sexual company with locked up homosexuals whose secrets are doomed to explode. Keneally inhabits cheerful, female and native characters with confidence and complexity, all observed in compelling detail, from their fashion to their fears and desires.
A glimmer of social change begins with Flo Honeywood’s rebellion against her husband, which leads her to unexpected bonds with Chicken and with Aboriginal boy, Eddie Kelly. Her encounter with a group of Thunguddi women in the Refreshment Rooms of Tsiros is an intricately drawn microcosm of multiracial Australia. But the power of power and prejudice await vulnerable transgressors.
In the other main storyline, Bert Webber, a Lutheran dairy farmer, collapses upon seeing a newsreel about the new German chancellor, “the man with the stupid economic mustache”. Despite his German ancestors, Bert fought with an Australian battalion in France and saw his friend gunned down by a “skinny, mustached” German. The encounter will haunt him and the course of history.
As Bert relives his horror under electroconvulsive therapy and mesmerism, his hapless wife, Anna, fills the void with one of the novel’s steamy sexual adventures. Other intrigues emerge with the mysterious past of Johnny Costigan, the Irishman who runs the Webber farm.
Keneally’s prose is robust (and at times humorous) with the language of Catholicism learned in his youth: “That holy and cursed pistol … the equivalent of the nails that tore the hands of Christ.” “The hallway [of the convent] smelled of varnish and virginity, and Flo thought it wasn’t a bad smell. And in a sexual fellowship, “there was gravity and erections to watch out for.”
Flashbacks to the trench warfare in 1916 and the Irish Civil War in 1922 dramatize the ambiguities of the conflict. Sometimes Keneally the Historian is so eager to share his knowledge that he pushes Keneally the Novelist away and the pace slows down. Yet these dark events are essential for understanding subsequent motivations.
Keneally skillfully braids her disparate strands, far too artful to create predictable results. Nothing goes as planned, even for those with noble intentions, keeping the plot tense until the end. Corporal Hitler’s pistol manages to be cheerful, upbeat entertainment while mourning the human tragedies that shaped the 20th century and beyond.