Friday, 9 April 2010

"Stettin Station", David Downing

I've long wanted to write about David Downing. I like the 2nd World War period in history, and as such he's a natural fit for my reading tastes; more substantively he's one of the very few authors set in the period who can legitimately hold a candle to Alan Furst.

They're both fantastic, immersive writers, yet somehow from a reader's perspective properly locating Downing alongside Furst isn't an entirely easy process, and I make no claim to have having done so here.

With Downing the city of Berlin is at the core of the writing, like Paris is in Furst, but here Berlin is so central to the story that the city almost becomes a character, and because time moves in the city, it never becomes stale. The Adlon in Downing evolves, in contrast to the way that Furst's Paris with its Brasserie Heininger seems almost stuck in entropy.

I have strong feelings about Furst at his best. "Dark Star" is a real contender for my Desert Island Book, and Downing's "Station" series in general, but "Stettin Station" in particular, remind me of this. The characters are trapped, closed in by a world evolving against them, and betrayed by plans that should have worked.

"Stettin Station" feels like an ending. By the time of its setting in 1941 the world could really be seen as closing in, and as such it's fitting that the most time I've spent thinking about this book, since finishing it, has focused on the final third or so of it.

There are many things abundantly worth writing about this book, and this series. Not least someone sometime should take the time to take about really how railways function as metaphor. The series emphatically works this, and in here they're more powerful than usual, a metaphor for war entering its darkest times - empty troop trains, passenger services, prisoner trains, and the cattle cars of the nascent holocaust all criss-crossing.

"Stettin Station" is a little different from previous works in series. Sure they all have had a serious tone, but here there isn't much of a happy ending. In fact it ends with an overpowering sense of menace that colours the rest of your day. This is fitting giving the subject matter, and is done in a way that leads you to read furtively at your desk, stretching the definition of your lunch hour, but nonetheless is profoundly affecting; James and Effi have done plenty to embed themselves in our consciousness over three books for us to care about them deeply.

The fourth volume in this series, "Potsdam Station" is due for release in July. I know this because a few hours after finishing "Stettin Station" I went straight to Amazon and searched for David Downing. There are mixed feelings involved here. On the upside I'm delighted there's more to be read about Downing's portrayal of Europe in darkness, yet there's almost a wistfulness that the utter ambiguity of the end of "Stettin Station" won't linger as a perpetual question in the mind of the reader. The Furst that paradoxically has stayed with me the most has been "The Polish Officer", where you're left fulfilled knowing the characters are safe, yet knowing the armageddon of the Warsaw Rising is yet to come. "Stettin Station" ends with this sort feeling, and while it's uncomfortable, it makes us better people for being uncomfortable.

It's a relief "Stettin Station" is not an ending, but this shouldn't divert from the central message of the book. December 1941 was an ending, as Churchill put it, it was the end of the beginning, but it was also an ending for too many lives, succumbing to the still incomprehensible crime of the 20th century.

I first read Downing in January 2009, and I still don't think I've done him justice in writing about him. Sure there are flaws, sure there are areas where he could at times fire on more cylinders, but to complain feels like carping. You don't have to have read the previous works, but it will help. If you like emotive fiction and have an interest in the middle part of the 20th century go and read this book.

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