Belorussia in the hot summer of 1943. The embattled German forces are struggling in their brutal war of occupation, and the story is narrated in the first person by Heinrich Hoffmann, a police officer attached to the S.S. in the small town of Lida. When a senior S.S. officer, General Steiner, is tortured and killed in an ambush on his way to visit Lida, Hoffmann is tasked by Lida’s S.S. commandment, the brutal and unpredictable Manfred Schlosser, to investigate the crime and quickly identify the perpetrators. Heinrich’s relationship with Manfred is complicated by the fact that Heinrich is engaged to Manfred’s sister, Eline living in northern Germany. Hoffmann is enraptured by Eline, whose family appears to be somewhat scornful of Hoffmann’s inferior social status. On a visit to Minsk to pursue lines of enquiry, Hoffmann is summoned to Generalkommissar Kube where he is given a specific task with reference to the killing of Steiner. The pursuit descends into grotesque madness and untrammelled barbarism as a convoluted truth and a plot is uncovered.
Pasternak describes a cruel and violent occupation, with the Germans by 1943 aware that their invasion of the Soviet Union was failing and that retreat was the only ultimate option. In the midst of this nightmare, Hoffmann’s investigation has to continue, with all the frustrations and limitations of bureaucracy that characterised all the elements of the Nazi project. It is not exactly an easy book to read with the unremitting cruelty, but one that is well-written and with considerable literary merit.