by Ben Elton
‘Thus, as the months went by, a strong bond formed between the youngsters, a bond separate to their school friends and their individual lives. They were the Saturday Club. . . . Paulus, Otto, Dagmar and Silke were a true gang of four.’
Ben Elton is better known (in the UK anyway) as a comedian and writer for stage and screen. His credits include episodes of the sitcom Blackadder, and the story of the musical Love Never Dies. However, he is a novelist too and, if Two Brothers is anything to go by, a fine novelist at that.
Two Brothers takes us back to the madness and the unspeakable horrors of the Hitler years in Germany. Otto and Paulus are born on the same day in 1920 although, as we learn at the beginning, they are not twins by blood. Frieda and Wolfgang Stengel, a Jewish couple, she a doctor, he a jazz trumpeter, are expecting twins but when one baby is stillborn they adopt another baby boy whose mother has died in childbirth.
Two seemingly unimportant details will determine the course of their lives. First, the adopted child isn’t a Jew – and at this stage in the novel we don’t know which is which. Secondly, Frieda and Wolfgang, not being religious people, don’t have their baby boys circumcised. Rather more important than either of these is the birth (on the same day of 1920) of another “baby” – the National Socialist German Workers Party!
Growing up alongside the brothers is Silke, daughter of the Stengel’s housemaid and babysitter, Edeltraud. Growing up in a very different environment is Dagmar, only child of wealthy Berlin store owner Isaac Fischer. Isaac engages Wolfgang to teach Dagmar piano and the four children become friends [the Saturday Club]. When Hitler seizes power in 1933, the families’ hitherto happy lives begin to fracture, slowly at first, then with increasingly awful momentum.
‘Tommy had indeed known the twins since preschool and they had certainly always been friends. But Tommy also knew that the Stengel twins were Jews. Subhuman according to the Chancellor of Germany. Vermin. A filthy cancerous parasitic disease . . . .’
Frieda is no longer allowed to treat non-Jews. The Fischers are humiliated and physical abused by the Brownshirts outside their store and Dagmar is only saved from worse treatment by Otto. Incidentally, both boys are in love with Dagmar, which is really tough on Silke. The madness escalates – withdrawal and denial of human rights, beatings, arson, Eugenics. Wolfgang is arrested and sent to a concentration camp, as is Isaac for trying to take his family out of the country. Then, the day comes when the authorities discover that one of the Stengel boys is not a Jew and he is separated from the only family he has ever known. I won’t spoil things by saying which boy but suffice to say he doesn’t go to the Napola [National Political Academy] willingly.
Two Brothers follows the history of Naziism pretty closely I would guess, leading up to Kristallnacht in November 1938.
‘In every street Otto saw homes ransacked. He saw clothes torn from young women by mobs who chanted that they were whores. He saw five- and six-year-olds, their mouths so wide with screaming that their entire faces seemed nothing but great black wailing holes.’
Finally, as we get to the War, and the death camps, and the gas ovens, killing has already become a way of life. However, Ben Elton gives us a twist or two and, even if you see it coming, you can’t be sure exactly how the story is going to turn out.
‘A further three bullets, one fired into each of their heads as they lay twitching in the dust, emptied the chamber and ensured Paulus’s secret was safe. Paulus wiped the handle of the gun on his shirt tail . . . . mounted his motorcycle and rode off.’
An intriguing subplot, set in 1956 London, which runs through the whole novel, raises different racial and political issues. Stone – [now which brother IS he?] – is being enticed to East Berlin by a letter from Dagmar, whom he thinks dead – [but is it a trap?] And what about the other brother, and Silke?
As Stone tells his story to Billie, his West Indian friend, we can see glimpses of what’s really going on. But it is only towards the end that we see just how clever this story is. Ben Elton has based his novel, including some of the characters, on his own family history. Harrowing at times – and definitely not a book for the sqeamish – it is nevertheless not told without glimmers of love, hope and humour.