Wednesday, 7 July 2004

Len Deighton: SS-GB (1979)

Edition: Triad Grafton, 1980
Review number: 1248

Because of Deighton's long history as a successful thriller writer before the appearance of SS-GB, it is packaged as a thriller; but in fact it is science fiction dealing with a classic theme of that genre, and would doubtless have been classified as such if it had been a first novel. For this is alternative history, set in a Britain occupied by the Third Reich after a successful 1941 German invasion. Central character Douglas Archer is a senior officer at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS. Like many in occupied England, he tries to carry on with his job - criminal investigation - without getting in the way of or thinking too hard about the German occupiers. Crime is, after all, still crime. However, he is gradually drawn into a Resistance plot, much against his better judgement.

The Second World War is a conflict which, because of the hateful policies of the Nazis, has generated many myths, ideas which have become entrenched in popular culture and unquestionable, especially in Britain, no matter what their historical accuracy. These myths include the plucky but ineffective Home Guard, the dedicated airmen and so on - and one of the most powerful is the role of the Resistance in occupied countries. Everybody was apparently on the side of the Resistance, even if they were unable to do anything active, apart from a small number of moral degenerates, congenital traitors. A moment's thought would show that this could not have been the case, particularly given the exceptionally vicious fighting between rival Resistance groups in countries like Greece and Yugoslavia, but it would be hard to write a novel as cynical as Deighton's about a country that had actually been occupied without causing offence. In SS-GB, most people collaborate to some extent or another; many even welcome the Germans for all kinds of reasons; the Germans are far more attractive characters than a lot of the Resistance members.

Another reason for writing this kind of novel is the ability it gives the author to make oblique criticisms. About three quarters of the way through, in a conversation about German brutality, one character says "I wonder if we'd be as bad as they are, if we'd won the war and were occupying Germany". You don't hear much about brutality from the British and American troops occupying West Germany after the war, but it is certainly a comment with an uncomfortable resonance these days in which we hear all the time about abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. It rubs against another Second World War myth, that the Germans were all brutal bullies and the Allies honourable young men.

SS-GB is a fascinating novel, extremely convincing (being based, of course, on Deighton's exhaustive knowledge of the period).

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