A review of Josef Jaeger by Jere’ M. Fishback, USA, 2009
Informative fun with a few flaws ****
The eponymous narrator of this coming-of-age story is a fictitious thirteen-year-old nephew of Ernst Roehm, leader of the SA in the newly-born Third Reich, with whom the boy goes to live in Munich following the sudden death of his mother. That the background has been thoroughly-researched is evident from the extraordinary attention to details of the setting. The historical characters mentioned are also convincingly portrayed, which is a fascinating treat in view of the tiresome popular tendency to depict the National Socialist leaders, alone amongst humanity, as absurdly devoid of redeeming features. In the case of Roehm, however, the humanisation may be overdone; he is depicted as more skeptical of anti-semitism and book-burning than the known facts warrant, and there is little sense of his pronouncedly proletarian brutishness.
However, the historically least realistic element of the story is the indifference of almost all the characters to homosexuality. For example, Roehm’s housekeeper, Frau Dexler, a simple Bavarian widow, laughingly tells young Josef the first day they meet that Roehm’s eighteen-year-old chauffeur Rudy is also his lover, “no business of ours, eh?” and expresses surprise at his confusion. Hitler, who in reality called Roehm’s homosexuality “an illness [which] does not interest me as long as he maintains the necessary discretion” (a discretion which apparently required Roehm in his last years to resort to procured youths rather than lovers), is here depicted as cheerfully acknowledging Rudy and letting him join them on his platform at the Nuremberg rally.
The book is most moving and psychologically convincing as a tale of a pubescent boy’s sexual awakening. Exceptionally beautiful and with a natural talent for acting, Josef is brought to Berlin to play the leading role in Quex, a genuinely-made propaganda film about a Hitler Youth. There he meets a slightly older Jewish boy called David, with whom he falls in love, forcing him to lead a rivetingly tense double-life. Despite this, while back in Berlin he is easily seduced by his twenty-year-old Hitler Youth leader Max, an SS officer who enjoys “the company of boys your age”, and then agrees to regular sessions of full sex with him over four months in return for favours, fun, mentorship, and something else. This is to be understood in the light of his long quest for bonding with an older male father-substitute, and indeed the novel is “dedicated to every boy who grows up without his father in his life”.
So far so good, but then the author tries too hard for dramatic effect and loses sight of his hero’s credible emotional state. Though by now pretty sophisticated for his age, Josef is deceived by Max, whom he does not really love and has no reason to trust, into an unbelievably swift and ill-considered volte-face respecting his uncle. Max too becomes implausible in his combination of ruthless deceit and unnecessary candour. Finally, Josef’s emotional response when the horrific truth emerges at the very end is so lame as to undermine what should have been a very powerful climax.
Interesting and enjoyable, but unevenly told in the latter half.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 9 April 2017