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Book Review: The Madagaskar Plan

By (August 17, 2015) No Comment

The Madagaskar Planthe madagaskar plan

by Guy Saville

Henry Holt, 2015

The appearance of Guy Saville’s debut novel The Afrika Reich back in 2011 drew its share of groans even before some critics had read a single word of its prose. The problem was the premise: an alternate history in which Nazi Germany survives was, to put it mildly, familiar. Hundreds of novels have used some variation of this premise, from Philip Dick’s egregiously overpraised The Man in the High Castle to Robert Harris’ taut 1992 police procedural Fatherland to Owen Sheers’ quietly effective Resistance. There’ve been so many ‘what if’ novels along these lines that readers might justifiably ask if anything more of value could still be mined out of this vein.

To give Saville fair credit, he crafted a narrative in The Afrika Reich that was so muscular and propulsive that it seemed neither to know nor to care that it was conceptually derivative. In that novel, the British disaster at Dunkirk led not just to a humiliating evacuation but to a change in government, with Lord Halifax replacing Winston Churchill and treating with Hitler’s Germany to end the war by ceding the Third Reich most of Europe and England’s former colonial possessions in Africa. Germany conquered Russia, and the United States remained carefully neutral. In 1952, Saville’s jut-jawed standard-issue action hero Burton Cole leads a covert strike team into the Nazi Germany (renamed Germania in these books)-controlled African province of Kongo on a mission to topple the governor general, an eminently hissable villain named Walter Hochburg. The mission – which is personal for Cole because his mother Eleanor had for a time been Hochburg’s “great love” and had died as a result of choosing her son over Hochburg – goes horribly wrong, and Saville lays on the pyrotechnics to bring The Afrika Reich to a conclusion so breathless and well-orchestrated that it’s easy to imagine all but the most jaded of those initial cynics being won over.

Those converts won’t be disappointed by Saville’s new follow-up novel, The Madagaskar Plan. It’s set the year after The Afrika Reich (and the catch-up exposition is so seamlessly worked into the first three chapters that this second novel could easily be read independent of the first, no mean feat in books of this kind) and is noticeably more ambitious in both its scope and its drama. There are still more shoot-em-up scenes than anything this side of a Brad Thor novel, and Burton Cole is still as interesting, intelligent, and pain-sensitive as a plank of wood. But he’s reluctantly drawn back to the Afrika reich by rumors that his pregnant lover has been taken there, presumably to face the proverbial fate worse than death. And likewise Hochburg returns, facing severe guerrilla uprisings from his enslaved population of Jews exiled from Europe in a process Saville pauses to describe in quick, gruesome detail:

To reach the targets set by Wannsee, 83,500 Jews had to be shipped from Europe each month, initially men of working age – known as pioneers – to built the new towns and military bases of Madagaskar; later women, children, and the old followed. Thousands never arrived, dying of suffocation or dysentery from the bubbling toilets or simply because their spirits could no longer endure the endless plunge and roll of the voyage. Eighty kilometers from arrival, the liners stopped to disgorge their dead. A rabbi was permitted to say a few words; then the splosh – splosh – splosh of weighted bodies hitting the waves. In these stretches of water, it was rumored, the sharks were too fat to swim.

If we’re charitable, we’ll say that the fact of sadistic, preening Hochburg being easily the book’s most complex and involving character might have been an accident on Saville’s part, but however it came about, the reader will here have the unsettling reaction of being eager for the Nazi chapters. And those chapters don’t disappoint: Hochburg is a coldly intelligent, gruesomely self-indulgent megalomaniac, but he’s never tedious (whoever plays him in the inevitable TV series should have a whale of a time). And in the sheer morbid extent of his love for the lost Eleanor, he puts the more flinty, stereotypical pining of Burton Cole to shame. Hochburg isn’t simply ruling Kongo in honor of her memory – he’s systematically re-shaping the entire country as one huge tribute to her:

The whole of his Afrika Reich would be her immortalization: every stone that was laid, every garrison, town, city: the ports, the white roads cutting through the jungle, the babel of a million copper threads connecting the continent. A mausoleum of such glory that her name need never be written on it. That’s why he’d been so impatient to invade Rhodesia: to consecrate more lands for her. Of course, they understood none of this in Germania. To the ministries on Wilhelmstrasse, Africa was a trove of mines and timber forests, its plantations existing solely to fill the bellies of the German hordes. But to Hochburg, Africa was a kingdom of temples.

And his memories of her aren’t those of a sadistic, manipulative monster but rather, with the help of Saville’s undeniable (though occasionally deep purple) way with words, those of an ardent and sensitive lover of the kind poor hapless gun-toting Burton Cole could only dream of being:

He was gliding with her in water as water as warm as amniotic fluid, below them a fathomless indigo black. A splash, a laugh … and they were lying naked next to each other in the mud, the sun filling their skin with light. He counted the freckles around her nose, which were as tiny as banana seeds. This was all he craved: this peace. If she hadn’t chosen Burton. If she hadn’t left Hochburg and been murdered, he would have watched the Nazis raise their edifice in Africa with indifference.

In The Madagaskar Plan, Hochburg has begun to hear rumors about a certain unbelievable-sounding doomsday bomb that the British and the allegedly-neutral Americans (under their president, Robert Taft) are developing, a bomb whose development in Nazi Germany has been halted by Adolf Hitler’s distaste for the “Jewish physics” that make it work. The tense pursuit of this game-changing bomb is just one of the many sub-plots Saville expertly keeps in motion throughout this book, which for all its absurdities is almost hypnotically readable. The Madagaskar Plan will not only please fans of The Afrika Reich but will undoubtedly make many new fans – and quite a few of them will be rooting for the Nazi villain. Talk about alternate history.