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Friday, September 6, 2013

"The Reflecting Man (Volume One)" by D.K.R. Boyd (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"Set in multiple locales in Canada, America, France, Germany, and England, before and during World War Two, Volume One of The Reflecting Man is the antic, ribald journey of a loquacious and unreliable narrator, Kurtis De’ath, whose unusual talents lead him into the innermost circles of Hitler’s Third Reich and Churchill’s British government. Kurtis’ various occupations—teaching German to a young Pierre Trudeau at College de Brébeuf during the rise of Adrien Arcand and Abbé Lionel Groulx; reporting on a KKK cross-burning in Oakville, Ontario for the Toronto Star; becoming the mysterious Herr Death, advisor to the Führer in pre-war Germany; the Shokoladenmann, dispenser of the delightful Bird Bonz confections; secretary to Winifred Wagner and her children; friend and colleague of Erland Echlin, the Newsweek bureau chief in London who first broke the news of the King of England’s relationship with Wallis Simpson to America; unwilling MI5 agent under spycatcher Maxwell Knight’s direction; friend and companion to William Joyce, aka. Lord Haw-Haw—provide a fascinating journey through the roots and branches of the actual historical figures involved and, at its heart, in meticulous detail is an examination of how Europe went to war in 1939. The Reflecting Man is himself a reflection of his times. The novel is widely and deeply researched, employing hundreds of non-fiction accounts, journals, and diaries of actual participants and observers of the darkening clouds over Europe and the descent into war."

The Reflecting Man is a novel that came out of nowhere to take over my reading. First and foremost it is a first person, voice novel and a lot of the appeal comes from Kurtis De'ath's commonsense approach to the craziness that starts taking over the world after the crash of 1929, culminating of course in the "abnormal" as normal that life in the Third Reich soon becomes. 

Here is Kurtis ruminating on how the "superman/subhuman" ideas so much popularized from Nietzsche on and leading to the forced euthanasia and sterilization policies of the 3rd Reich from 1934 on are total bunk, while remembering his first "boss", a low IQ but otherwise perceptive and cheerful cousin of the rich Gagnon's who foster Kurtis from age 12 on.

"Seems to me, however, that folks like Cinnamon Jim fit right in neatly if you can find that misshaped hole for the misshaped peg like Arthur did for him in our store. Sure, he ruined about four hundred dollars worth of toffee with his handprints but, if you try hard enough to help someone, you can eventually find a solution.The thing is, you have to want to try, right? Doesn't sound like Herr Nietzsche feels it’s worth the effort in the first place, so more fool him. I'm a Maritimer; we use common sense as our guide because logic often involves too many details and generally screws things up."
Following the usual memoir structure after the first introductory page that hooked me on the book both by its style and by the implied promises, The Reflecting Man presents Kurtis' life from his parents' deaths in 1922 when at age 12 he gets to live within Canadian chocolate maker Arthur Gagnon's household and become foster brother to his 12 year old son Whitten.

"I have confessed my predilection for striking first when I was challenged, mocked, derided, baited, teased, slighted, hairy-eyeballed…the list of offenses was, to be sure, much less nuanced in my twelve-year-old understanding than I am presenting here. My boy’s brain reacted on impulse without much, if any, discretion. Terry Corby received the boot for calling me “Kurtis-s-s-s-s-s,” like a snake might say it. Dwayne and Blayne Kinson were each well and truly hoofed in their dangling participles, although I had to chase Blayne half a mile before I got him. If I recall correctly, they were three years older than I was and made cracks about Death being a half-pint. I stuck a fist into Daryl Horne's nose for declaring that I was the thief who ate his sardine sandwich during school lunch break. It couldn’t have been me because I despised (and still do) the smell and taste of sardines. I’d rather eat a dead cat. Besides, once I’d discovered that it was a sardine sandwich I chucked it in the bushes."

The novel also offers ample detours in the past of the Gagnon family and later in the history of Canada, both in its Anglophone and Francophone versions - born a catholic, Kurtis is raised as a Baptist by the Gagnons, though later he becomes best friends with a French Canadian young Jesuit and gets to teach German at the Jesuit college of Montreal who at the time was "the" place for educating the Francophone elite of Canada -  and while at times the book meanders a little, overall I quite enjoyed these side-stories and found out a lot of details about Canadian history.

However, not everything told to us is to be taken at face value - as he warns us from the first page - and by the device of him reading surreptitiously diaries of his friends - we get to see different facets of Kurtis that seem to justify the strong impression he makes on various powerful and not so powerful people on first sight...

Of course the main promise of the book is Kurtis' association with Adolf Hitler and when we get there and more generally to Kurtis' arrival in Germany in June 1933 and his sort of co-optation in the new Chancellor's inner circle - seen as a mascot by some, as a charlatan by others, but ultimately all tying in with Hitler's "mystical" beliefs in destiny - the novel truly takes flight and becomes impossible to put down.

With an ending at a reasonable "to be continued" point, but strongly wishing for more despite its 700+ page bulk, The Reflecting Man vaulted to my top 10 books of the year and the announced sequel - sadly seems to be 2015 only - became a huge asap.

Highly, highly recommended and I will end presenting the first page which should give you a clear idea of both style and ambition:  

"'My name is De’ath.
You can say it all in one breath…Deeth, as they do in Essex in England. Or you can double the syllable and have…Dee-ath, which is how we say it in the Maritimes in Canada.
Accent on the ‘ath, please. Invariably I am asked to spell it aloud.
Most don’t note the apostrophe if they’re writing it down or pretend to omit it, especially when it gives them a chance to be clever at my expense. Almost no one can avoid remarking upon it.
I thought Death himself had come for me! Isn’t that something? Death himself standing right here in front of me. If that don’t beat all…etc. etc.
I find no humor in it. From snotty bureaucrats—the ilk infesting Whitehall in war-poor, crapped-out London instantly come to mind—to the ashes of the sadists in the recently extinguished Reich chancellery in Berlin, there has been an overwhelming fascination in meeting Death…and joking about it.
Meeting De’ath is not quite the same thing.
Almost, but not quite.
Death, as I learned, is as easy as falling down a well. You make a little splash and that’s the end of it. Death in war is conducted under different rules. It is my task to explain why this is
so and how and why I found myself so tangled up in the one which just ended.
Yes, I am the notorious Herr Death, mysterious confidant of the Führer.
Yes, I am the famous Schokoladenmann, chocolate maker to the Wagners.
Yes, I am Kurtis De’ath, a young man from the Maritimes, and your unreliable, opinionated narrator, leading you through the labyrinth of what Lord Beaverbrook now refers to as World War Two..."



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