At the May meeting of the Bookgroup at the Oxfam Bookshop Muswell Hill we discussed Two Brothers by Ben Elton. The novel traces the lives of two boys brought up as twins in a Jewish family in Berlin from the 1920s, through the rise of Nazism, to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and beyond.
Two Brothers is a novel about identity and survival in an environment that wants to deprive you of both; and about the lengths that individuals and families will go to, to ensure that survival.
As a group we discovered that a number of us identified with some elements of the story as we had relatives who had escaped from Germany during the 1930s and’40s. Because of this we were impressed by the descriptions of the gradual erosion of freedoms and rights that Jews in Berlin were subjected to. We felt that Ben Elton blended his research into the plot with sensitivity and subtlety – especially the elements that came from his own family history. In the afterword he describes how his great aunt had elected to stay with a group of children being transported to Lithuania where they were shot. This brief history is translated In the novel into the losses experienced by Frieda, a doctor and mother of the eponymous brothers, that eventually lead to her climbing aboard a truck transporting young children, her motive being to bring some comfort to them. As a reader you know what the outcome will be.
When he is writing about the interactions between his characters he is not always as skilled. There are a number of times when the dialogue and action give the reader a full picture of what is happening, but the authorial voice will intervene for a sentence or two to explain the significance. We had all found passages where we were jarred out of our ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ because the writing did not ring true. We were unsure whether he did not have confidence in his skill as a writer or whether the emotional attachment to his subject matter was too strong.
The chapters set in the 1920s with jazz clubs and soaring inflation reminded us of Cabaret, the film based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin. But it also sparked a discussion about Elton’s knowledge of jazz, both in the 1920s and the 1950s. Research on-line confirmed that ‘The Sheik of Araby’ was a hit in Berlin in 1923 and that although no evidence could be found for it, Tubby Hayes could have played it in the Downbeat Club in 1956. In his early years of playing saxophone in the big bands of Ambrose and Jack Parnell it would have been part of the repertoire. The research also indicated that, with changes to the words, ‘The Sheik or Araby,’ was used in Nazi propaganda broadcasts to mock Churchill. If the song is intended as a motif to link past and present, father and son, it is too obscure and Ben Elton appears to be aiming at a greater sweep within the novel than he has the skill to carry off. This shows up particularly in his attempts to parallel the birth and rise of the Nazi Party with the birth and life decisions of the two brothers. As a theme in the story this always seems to be grafted on.
However, we all agreed that Two Brothers was a good read which had given us a fascinating plot, a moving insight into life in war-time Berlin and a great evening of discussion.