Review: A Place of Strangers. By Geoffrey Seed

LIFE AS CIRCUMSTANCE,

Life as a result of circumstance: men and women of an older generation, one born to suffer two world wars, who suffered, killed and died in the horrendous conflicts of the first part of the twentieth century over which they had no control. “We weren’t born killers, we were made to be”, declares one of the main characters of Geoffrey Seed’s first novel, `A place of Strangers’, as he struggles, decades later, with the moral complexity of war, genocide and revenge, a dish that is not perhaps,`best eaten cold’.

On the surface, A Place of Strangers is an espionage thriller. The book contains all the usual elements of the genre: murder, treachery, ambition, love (in this case a triangle), undercover agents and their unethical and not particularly pleasant world of shifting sympathies, where `knowledge shared is an advantage lost’. But more than anything `A Place of Strangers’ is a story about revenge, about the settling of scores. It is a novel that speaks to the ethical and moral dilemmas that retribution brings with it, above all in a world where formal justice is extremely unlikely or simply impossible, and in which entire peoples have been brought to the edge of oblivion.

The novel does not offer an unequivocal opinion about the nature of justice and revenge: any conclusions about what is right or wrong in circumstances such as those prevalent in the aftermath of the Second World War are bound to be fraught with inconsistencies. That is not to imply that the book is some sort of moral relativist tale, but rather that justice and revenge are closely linked, sometimes inseparable, and that an absolute standard against which justice and its associated punishments can be measured, is sometimes simply unavailable.

Seed informs us that the novel is based on a story once told to him by an unnamed older diplomat: an account later informally corroborated by other links he managed to track down. The narrative related to the apparent suicides of a number of ex-Nazis still living undercover decades after the Second World War. But, despite the verbal support, the story finally proved impossible to substantiate. No concrete evidence was ever provided or could ever be found. What did exist was the desire to keep a fascinating story alive. There was enough material, says Seed, and by filling in some of the gaps a novel took shape.

The protagonist of the tale, McCall, is a television journalist working at the time of the late Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. His untidy, rather unhinged personal life is thrown into even greater disarray by revelations made to him by his dying stepfather, a man who, now near death, increasingly suffers from remorse over his part in the fire bombing of German cities. But while McCall’s own life and struggle to survive is crucial to the account, it is not the principal theme. The journalist is the agent whose actions and questions help to peel back the layers of personal, political and generational duplicity linked to a murderous war and to the holocaust, events that have deeply affected McCall’s life and traumatised the people who most care for him.

Geoffrey Seed thinks the Holocaust is the greatest crime in history, and perhaps it is, although there are other historical `events’ that are clearly in the running for what is an extremely dark honour. But ranking crimes such as these does not help much, and in practice the title hardly matters: the killing of millions of Jews, Roma, and the mentally and physically infirm, certainly ranks amongst the most horrific crimes in human history. However, the moral question posed by `A Place of Strangers’ is not related to the guilt of the perpetrators, but rather to the right of the victims of that horror (and, by implication, of other cases of mass murder) to retribution, to `an eye for an eye’, to a justice that even in its most `civilized’ form is not so very distant from those supposedly cruder forms.

The fundamental problem is that the sheer scale of events such as the holocaust and conflicts such as the Second World War, leaves little recourse to formal justice for the millions affected by the often vindictive cruelty and violence. Defeated leaders are obvious targets, but as for the rest, the evidently inadequate `forgive and forget’ is often the only recipe on offer. Always supposing, of course, that justice and not revenge is the intention of the victors, whose interests are not always served by an excessive scrutiny of their own actions – the murderous fire bombing of Japanese and German cities comes to mind – and who are busy taking whatever advantage they can from the post war situation.

So what responsibility and what rights do individuals have in such situations? Is it wrong to take an unavailable `justice’ into one’s own hands decades after the event and, if the opportunity presents itself, to exact revenge for families that have disappeared, been murdered in cold blood, or merely tortured? Is it wrong to collaborate in acts of revenge for crimes that do not concern one directly, but which will clearly never be brought to trial? Justice would say that personal revenge is wrong and therefore punishable, but while that characterisation might make life more stable for society in general, for the offended the very fact of impunity can understandably generate a desire to settle scores, above all when there is evidence.

Revenge and the doubt about its own legitimacy are the essence of `A Place of Strangers’. Retribution is the emotion that drives an often very personal, intimate, and deeply felt novel, one that almost certainly contains elements of Seed’s own life, and which is clearly not the result of a production line process. The sentiment in this espionage style thriller is evident, less evident is why the book has not had greater exposure.

21 May 2013