Book Review:The Odessa File
The Odessa File is a thriller by Frederick Forsyth, first published in 1972, about the adventures of a young German reporter attempting to discover the location of a former SS concentration-camp commander.
Introduced by my Dad
I first came across The Odessa File quite a long time ago. Dad had rented a DVD of the movie, but it was beyond my comprehension and I soon lost interest in it. I must have been around ten or so at that time. A few years later, when I started high school, it was Dad (as usual) who introduced me to Frederick Forsyth's novels. I began with a book called The Veteran, a collection of five stories, the only one of which I remember is a vivid story revolving around Saint Catherine of Siena. I thoroughly enjoyed that particular story, and quickly moved on to The Day of the Jackal next. That was another gripping read, and I quite loved the plot. I soon ended up watching the movie based on the book. (Interesting trivia, pointed to me by Daddy dearest- The Day of the Jackal, starring Edward Fox, produced by John Woolf!) At the end, while we were discussing the thrilling plot, it invariably ended up with The Odessa File, which was the book that followed The Day of the Jackal. Ever since, I've been wanting to read this book, but it evaded me till a week ago! I suddenly chanced upon it, and I can safely say that I've never been this engrossed by a book before. If The Day of the Jackal was good, I would have to say that this is infinitely better. (Some say it is the other way round, but maybe because I read The Odessa File only recently, the impact seems more powerful?)
The Plot and The Review
It is the winter of 1963. On a cold November evening in Hamburg, Peter Miller is driving back home, when he hears about John F Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. As he listens to the news on the radio, he pulls his car to the side of the road. Suddenly he sees an ambulance drive past. As an investigative journalist, he instinctively senses that something is amiss and begins to follow the ambulance. He ends up in front of a house in the slums of Altona, and finds that a man has gassed himself. The next day, his friend in the police hands him a diary belonging to the deceased man, Salomon Tauber, who as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, had escaped death at the concentration camps of Riga. Reading through the diary, Miller comes to know that certain members of Hitler's Schutz Staffel have taken on completely different identities, and have gone into hiding in order to escape being brought to trial for war crimes. In fact, they are more than alive- most of them, under new identities, have become part of West Germany's respectable society, hiding the ugly scars of the Holocaust, an uncomfortable past which everybody seemed eager to forget. Tauber's diary begins with these words- My name is Saloman Tauber, I am a Jew and about to die. The pages soon reveal the atrocities committed by Eduard Roschmann, an SS commander who soon came to be known as the Butcher of Riga. Tauber writes that he was forced by Roschmann to send his wife, Esther, to the concentration camps, and that was the day he lost his soul. Two decades later, Tauber, now living all alone in Altona, is astonished to see Roschmann, walking freely down the streets of Hamburg. The elderly Jewish man writes in his diary that his last wish to see the SS commander stand before a court and tried for his war crimes wouldn't be fulfilled. All his efforts to survive so that justice could be achieved had failed. It had all been a waste of time. The last page of the diary states that if someone ever comes to read it in the land of Israel, that person should please say khaddish for Tauber's soul.
Something mentioned in the diary prompts Miller to go on a hunt to track Roschmann down. Why should Miller, a pure Aryan, embark on this wild goose chase to bring a former Nazi officer to justice? It all happened a long time ago, and he soon finds that not many people want to help him out. As a young man, he seems to have everything- a lucrative career that earns him well; he drives a sleek Jaguar of which he is fiercely protective; he has a girlfriend who works in the nightclubs of the Reeperbahn district. Then was it just sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust that moved him to undertake this mission? Or was there something else?
Also weaved into the plot is a project undertaken by the Odessa (the organisation of former SS officials) to develop powerful rockets against Israel. These rockets are being developed by German scientists, working in the Egyptian city of Helwan, but the entire research project is controlled by a man working in West Germany, who is only revealed by his code-name, Vulkan, named after the smith who crafted the thunderbolts of the gods in Greek mythology. On the other side, the Israeli Mossad does its best to thwart these plans. The Odessa chief in Germany, only known as the Werwolf, is given the task of ensuring Vulkan's safety. When he comes to know of Miller's quest, he is required to take care of Roschmann's safety as well, because of the latter's role in an extremely important Odessa mission. Hence the Werwolf hires an assassin known as Mack the Knife to handle Miller. There is also an episode where Miller meets Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish 'Nazi-hunter', from whom he derives much information about the Odessa. (Coincidentally, the first news that I came across my twitter feed this morning was this. So there really was a Simon Wiesenthal!)
Some parts of the book, especially, are written poignantly. For example, in Tauber's diary are these words- There is a French adage, 'To understand everything is to forgive everything'. When one can understand the people,their gullibility and their fear, their greed and their lust for power, their ignorance and their docility to the man who shouts the loudest, one can forgive...There are some men whose crimes surpass comprehension and therefore forgiveness, and here is the real failure. For they are still among us, walking through the cities, working in the offices...That they should live on, not as outcasts but as cherished citizens, to smear a whole nation in perpetuity with their individual evil, this is the true failure. And in this we have failed, you and I , we have all failed, and failed miserably. Was Tauber referring to the general apathy of the society? Was it written in anguish, pained by the indifference of the people in power to something that happened a long time ago? After all, despite the scars, West Germany had risen like a phoenix from the ashes, and to bring these former SS officers to justice would be akin to opening old wounds, 'an inconvenient truth' indeed.
Here's another passage from the book which made me pause and think. Forsyth writes about Klaus Winzer, an expert forger who worked for Hitler's army during the war, and later for the Odessa, by providing important members fake documents through which they sought refuge in Latin America. At the end of the war, Winzer forged sheets of American food rations which could last for months. He explains that they were not forged, 'just printed on a different machine'. He soon begins forging passports, driving licenses and other important documents. He explains it this way- A document is not either genuine or forged, it is either efficient or inefficient. If a pass is supposed to get you past a checkpoint, and it gets you past the checkpoint, it is a good document.When a person is blinded by a certain ideology and pursues the same with zeal, he will come up with any excuse to justify it! Zeal slowly gives way to madness and then he loses sight of the real issues, because he has fooled himself into believing that his ideology is true.
Was Miller able to track Roschmann down? Why did he want to bring the Butcher of Riga to justice? What happened to the rockets of Helwan? Who was the Vulcan? These are some of the questions answered in the climax. A thrilling plot, written so very convincingly, this is one book I'm unlikely to forget in a long long time!
If you also want to write and earn, then JOIN HERE