Trigger warning for brief descriptions of medical experimentation and torture committed during the Holocaust.
Originally published in 1966, this curious novel by Emeric Pressburger, The Glass Pearls, is the kind of story that makes you doubt everything you’re reading. It’s also strange because the Jewish author fled continental Europe in the 1930s in the face of increasingly violent anti-Semitism and Nazism and the protagonist of this novel is a war criminal who committed acts so awful that even twenty years after the war there’s a decent chance that he’d face serious jail time if German prosecutors knew about him. As soon as I finished this novel, I had to sit quietly on my couch while I questioned everything I had just read. This was an amazing thriller from a celebrated screenwriter.
The Glass Pearls is narrated from the perspective of a German war criminal who, twenty years after the end of World War II, is living under an assumed name in London. While we don’t have specifics, we do know that the man we know as Karl Braun served as a neurosurgeon in at least one concentration camp. We also know that his wife and child were killed in the 1943 bombing of Hamburg. At the end of the war, Karl and a friend/comrade escaped to Switzerland with a large amount of stolen money. The comrade went to Argentina; Karl went to the United Kingdom. More details—about Karl’s real name, his crimes, and his paranoia—trickle in as the narrative progresses.
For twenty years, Karl has been laying low. By the time we meet him, he’s living a very quiet life working as a piano tuner. He knows that he can’t give away anything, not even the slightest hint of real information about himself, in order to stay out of the hands of the Zentrale Stelle, one of the few state agencies that still pursues and prosecutes Nazi War Crimes. He lives in a state of constant, gnawing paranoia that someone is after him and that he will be dragged back by a German court. That paranoia ratchets up over the course of The Glass Pearls due to the sudden arrival (and even more sudden death) of the comrade who escaped with Karl from Germany at the end of the Second World War. This blast from the past arrives almost at the same instant that Karl has decided to date a British woman, Helen, who is so young and of her time that it’s a miracle they can talk to each other across the gulf of almost an entire generation.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the experience of seeing a man slowly boil just like the metaphorical frog in the pot as his paranoia begins to eat him alive. On the outside, he is spinning stories and lies and half-truths as fast as he can to appear like any other middle-aged and definitely-not-a-Nazi German to the people he works with and builds relationships. On the inside, he worries that everyone who asks about him is from the Zentrale Stelle or some other Nazi-hunting group. He frets that the real or invented details he drops could possibly connect him to his crimes. It takes very little time for Karl to transform from a quiet, drab refugee to a sweating, irrational puddle of a human. Because we know that Karl is guilty (he admits to his crimes but doesn’t think of them as crimes), I couldn’t help but read this book with a satisfied sense of schadenfreude.
The Glass Pearls is a masterwork—with a perfect, unexpected, and utterly cinematic climax and conclusion—one that I’m very glad is being re-released by Faber.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.