The Dictator’s Muse

Written by Nigel Farndale
Review by Katharine Quarmby

This novel takes as its theme the build up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, centering on the stories of three British young people caught up in the politicisation of sport. Kim Newlands is an impoverished English athlete hoping to triumph, despite competing against the Black American track and field champion, Jesse Owens. He makes a deal with the devil so he can train, taking (forbidden) sponsorship funding from the British Union of Fascists (BUF). His girlfriend, fascist sympathiser and aristocrat Connie Dalton, accompanies him to Berlin, along with a young Welshman, Alun Pryce, a Communist who has infiltrated the BUF. Film-maker Leni Riefenstahl is the fourth key character. For her part, she is preparing to capture the Olympic Games on film, playing various Nazi leaders against each other as she works. The fate of all four collide at the Olympics, as Riefenstahl captures a heavily edited version of reality on film. Her creative honesty, however, forbids her from destroying the rushes.

The novel is framed by the (near) contemporary research of a young German journalist, Sigrun Meier, who has been willed exclusive access to Riefenstahl’s film archives. She visits Riefenstahl’s Bavarian house, finding an archive of an unknown British athlete. On impulse she steals the film. Her original aim of discovering whether Hitler ever shook the hand of Owens leads her deeper. Instead, she uncovers a story with personal implications.

This is an immersive historical thriller. Farndale brings the troubled history of the time, in both Germany and the UK, to life, deftly intercutting it with the more contemporary timeline. He weaves all the strands of the story together at the end, creating a narrative that questions whether, as Pryce thinks, the ends do justify the means. This is a novel that interrogates betrayal, the long shadow of history and the persistence of love.