Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Draughtsman - Robert Lautner

 Set in Germany towards the end of WW2, this extraordinary tale explores that old adage about what happens when mankind sees something but does nothing. Ernst is married to a beautiful wife, his soulmate. They live hand to mouth in a couple of small rooms, paying too much rent, she working in a bar/cafe a couple of nights a week, and he having not worked at all since university. But he is a trained draughtsman, and there is a large engineering firm in town. After an interview, he is surprised and pleased to be offered a job, redrawing engineering plans so that a layman will understand them. His job is in the Special Ovens Department, under the management of Hans Klein, a showy kind of guy, fast car, nice clothes etc. It is he who arranges for Ernst and Etta to move out of their crummy accommodation and into a new house, with several rooms, and for the installation of a telephone.

It is not long before Ernst realises what it is he is working on, but as is so often the case, he decides that "I am just doing my job". His wife is not so sure, and when his childhood friend Paul, who has made a substantial living out of running his own crematorium talks to him about that job, he is still dismissive. At first, I questioned why he would continue at his job, but realization dawned as I realised that no job meant no home, no food, and nothing at all to look forward to - for when would the war end? At least the town Ernst and Etta live in is away from the fighting and bombing, food is readily available, and they are near the wonderful Beech Tree Forest..... Buchenwald.

Written in the first person, we see Ernst's views remain the same for a very long time - just doing his job - but somehow, somehow, his mind begins to change. But will it change enough?

The research for this novel is impeccable. It is fiction, but so much of it actually happened. Lautner says in his afterward (which simply must be read) that he wrote the book because he wanted to ask the question "What would you do?" And for Ernst, that is the question. After all, he was only doing his job.

*Robert Lautner's first book was The Road to Reckoning.

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