- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006


By Richard Grant

Knopf, $24.95, 384 pages


Mingling German myth and literature with its story line, Richard Grant’s “Another Green World” at times makes you feel that its characters are operating in some menacing Grimms’ fairyland — one that, in fact, the book mentions — which perhaps is a nod toward the fantasy and science fiction that were the genre of Mr. Grant’s previous novels.

But make no mistake, surreal moments notwithstanding, the subject of “Another Green World” is all too real. Chapters alternate between 1929 and 1944. In the earlier year, four young Americans meet at a mammoth youth-movement encampment on a German mountaintop in a spirit of joy and optimism. From there they go their separate ways, but the novel then slowly pulls them, and young Europeans they have met along the way, back together to a cataclysmic reunion in 1944.

The novel opens in July 1944 in Washington, D.C., the hometown of longtime friends Martina Panich and Ingo Miller. Martina, a government employee for whom Eleanor Roosevelt is a saint, works ploddingly and faithfully for the liberal goals of the FDR administration. Ingo, equally plodding but a Republican, is an intellectual running a failing restaurant while pondering, mostly mutely, the great imponderables of existence.

In 1944, the rich young man they meet on that mountaintop, Samuel Butler Randolph III, known as Butler, is a war correspondent for leftist periodicals who travels with the Red Army, a kind of latter-day Richard Harding Davis with socialist leanings. And Isaac Tadziewski, a teenage New York City Jew attending the youth summit on his way to stay with relatives in Europe — well, just what he is doing in Poland in 1944 is a mystery as well as the heart of the novel.

1929 had been an end and a beginning for all of them. The youthful camaraderie that Martina experiences there opens her eyes to world events and conditions that she had never considered before. For Ingo, whose intelligence and methodical, self-observant manner make him the book’s most interesting character, the summit provides the confirmation of his dawning realization that he is gay.

The machine that drives the fates of the four toward one another is a guerrilla band, the Varian Fry Brigade, that Martina and Ingo join so they can go to Europe to obtain from Isaac a document that apparently offers irrefutable proof of Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution. (The author does not clarify that Varian Fry was the name of an American who, in 1940-41, had helped thousands of refugees caught in the Vichy zone of France escape from the Nazis.)

It is a wild-eyed scheme by a motley crew. Frankly, Mr. Grant makes neither their competence nor motivations fully believable, and a swashbuckling episode in the middle of a great war by a gang of out-of-shape, unmilitaristic amateurs does not ring true, notwithstanding the training they go through or that similar campaigns have been attempted in real life.

After their ship lands in Yugoslavia, they press on to Poland for a shattering encounter with Butler and Isaac. Also converging there are an SS officer who had been a youth at the summit and a fair-sized contingent of the Red Army. By this point you will not be surprised who ends up as the last man standing.

The book’s style or mood is serious but not solemn. Mr. Grant’s rendering of the way English is spoken by Germans not entirely fluent in the language is spot-on, as are his depictions of the Youth Movement (a truly big deal in early 20th-century Germany) and the Weimar Republic’s fledgling efforts at democracy.

Two chapters especially merit mention: “Werewolf Country,” in which Ingo is holed up in a great hunting lodge with a professor of philology turned SS officer who discusses how language can end the war, and “Changing Scenes,” which appears to be Butler’s notes (in 1929) for a novel based on himself and the other three.

On the other hand, there are some clunkers. Mr. Grant tends to overdose on German terms, perhaps in an effort to add to the atmosphere, and does not always translate them accurately.

And did Americans really refer to themselves as Yanks then, as Mr. Grant has them do? We don’t call ourselves that now, though others, such as Britons, always have, to the annoyance of Southerners.

“Another Green World” has a ponderousness about it, an overwrought sense of significance, as if to say there is meaning in meaninglessness. It appears to strive for a gravitas that it cannot achieve, but that does not greatly detract from an otherwise engaging and illuminating read.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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