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The Glass Pearls/Emeric Pressburger

This novel is absorbing but troubling. The writer Emeric Pressburger was a distinguished film maker who, with Michael Powell, made such classics as Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death.

He wrote this novel in the 1960s and it has just been republished by Faber.

The subject is a German man, probably in his sixties, who books a room in a boarding house in Pimlico.

His name is Karl Braun – he is a piano tuner but harbours a dark secret: he performed brain operations under his former name Otto Reitmuller in the style of Joseph Mengele in Wachau concentration camp.

He lives in paranoid fear of discovery and constructs lies mainly with his platonic girlfriend/companion Helen. He tells her he lived in Paris during WW2 and she believes him.

I say it is troubling as Braun/Reitmuller is no brute but a courteous, cultivated, man who goes to classical music concerts at the Festival Hall with Helen and is an accomplished violinist (like Reinhardt Heydrich).

This belies the notion that Nazis were psychopathic sadists.

Braun believed he was advancing neurology and the study of memory through his operations on inmates. He also believes that he is being unfairly hunted down as the time of immunity for prosecution was extended.

Most disturbing of all, he evinces sympathy from the reader – this is all the more surprising because Pressburger was himself a Hungarian Jew whose mother died in Auschwitz.

The title stems from one of Braun’s many lies, namely that in Paris he entertained three young ladies for dinner with oysters in the shells of which he put false glass pearls.

The source of these lies are revealed at the end of the novel. I read it as an audible book and was impressed by Mark Gatiss as reader. There were two other Germans in the Pimlico boarding house : Leslie Strohmeier a fixer always looking to do a deal bringing some comic relief and Jewish refugee Jaroslav Kohm. Both have subtly different accents to the narrator Braun but Gatiss masters all three. I was so absorbed that I listened to this excellent novel in one day. It is a worthy if troubling addition to the Holocaust canon