September 1938. Hitler and Chamberlain sign the Munich Agreement, an accord made famous by Chamberlain’s declaration of ‘peace for our time’ and the irony of the outbreak of war less than a year later. The events in Harris’s novel take place over the four days surrounding the meeting at Munich, focusing on the activities in both the German and the British camps. However, a novel, especially one based on a well-documented and relatively uncomplicated episode in history, requires something more than the known facts.
Harris’s solution is to insert two fictional characters, one English and one German, into the respective delegations. Once good friends, the motivations behind their attendance at Munich, and the mystery surrounding their previous estrangement, comprise twin sub-plots within the novel, and provide welcome added complexity. The German character, Hartmann, is one with whom modern readers, on either side of the divide, can sympathise: flawed and weak, but with a desire to do good. Legat, on the other hand, seemed to me a rather stereotypical English civil servant with the (almost) obligatory unsatisfactory marriage. While their interaction at Munich was interesting and believable, I was disappointed by the scant treatment given to Lenya, who, though crucial to the sub-plot, appeared at the end of the novel rather like a rabbit-out-of-a-hat.
Harris excels at spare, atmospheric description: ‘the grey sky, the sombre quiet of the crowd…like a state funeral’, and evocative imagery such as the final depiction of Chamberlain as ‘the jagged black figure…like a man who had thrown himself upon an electrified fence.’ This striking image also contains a powerful sub-text, which we recognize only through hindsight. Recommended for those with an interest in key points in Europe’s history.