Into the Woods

Reviewed by Ross King
Sunday, September 3, 2006


A Novel

By Richard Grant

Knopf. 384 pp. $24.95

Richard Grant has enjoyed a 20-year career conjuring up enchanting and often disturbing worlds of make-believe. Though always anchored in the here-and-now, his novels have treated readers to marvels such as a mutating forest ( Rumors of Spring ), alien abduction ( Kaspian Lost ) and a bizarre postmortem world ( Tex and Molly in the Afterlife ). His latest and most ambitious effort, however, needs no supernatural help. Another Green World finds its nightmarish landscape all too real: the dying days of World War II, as the Third Reich collapses and Allied troops pour into Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. In a war novel that bristles with ideas and allusions, Grant uses this grim landscape to explore the power of myth and the "folklore of atrocity."

The novel begins in Washington, D.C., in 1944. Ingo Miller, owner of a beer-and-schnitzel joint, receives word of a secret document bearing witness to the Holocaust. The message purports to come from Isaac Tadziewski, an American-born leader of a Jewish resistance group operating somewhere in Eastern Europe. Isaac and the document must be found, and the document brought back to America. "Send Ingo," the cryptic message reads, "Ingo I'll trust."

A German-American isolationist, Ingo is an unlikely war hero. But he and Isaac have met before, 15 years earlier in Germany. Each went to the mountaintop summit of the "Free Youth Movement," a back-to-nature extravaganza of lederhosen, rucksacks and social optimism. This summit had been a rite-of-passage for Ingo, and perhaps also for Germany. As the narrative oscillates between 1929 and 1944, Grant traces how a fairy-tale world of "skintight leggings and hats with bells on them" has shaded into a nightmare of jackboots, swastikas and SS insignia. The seeds of this nightmare were already sprouting in 1929; the idealism of the summit was splintered by the event that brought Ingo and Isaac together: an attack on Isaac by members of the Hitler Youth and his rescue by Ingo.

Now a near-mythical commando known as Little Fox, Isaac again needs help against the Nazis. The stolid but dependable Ingo answers the call, helping to organize a motley crew of resistance fighters: a rabbi, a butcher, a dentist, a taxi-driver and a guerrilla fighter named Capt. Aristotle. The Magnificent Seven they most definitely are not. As this group hatches its plans in suburban Washington, we have good reason to suspect that what follows will not be a typical guns-blazing adventure story.

And indeed it's not. This is a challenging novel whose take on World War II is closer to the surreal dystopia of Thomas Pynchon than to the patriotic valor of Herman Wouk. Though there's action aplenty, Grant uses the disintegration of Europe to probe human relationships and the roots of collective delusions. For Ingo, a devoted student of German literature nourished on legends of Grail-quests and hidden castles, the brigade is embarking on a kind of knights-in-armor adventure, trekking across the forbidding terrain that inspired classics of German culture such as the Nibelungenlied and Wagner's "Ring Cycle." The book is infused with these Teutonic folk tales and myths that have passed out of the hands of the poets and minstrels and into -- with alarming ease -- those of the Nazi propagandists.

It's fitting that Grant, one of fantasy literature's most eloquent and erudite practitioners, should tackle the role played by mythmaking in politics and war. This happens to be the specialty of one of the novel's more repellent characters, a Nazi named Professor Cheruski. Asked by Heinrich Himmler about the key to understanding a people -- "to knowing how they think, why they choose to act or not to act in a given situation" -- Cheruski answers: "It is their literature, Herr Reichsführer. The stories they tell of themselves. . . . The tales that seem to have sprung from the depths of their folk-soul." Nazism could never have found such a ready purchase had the Germans not become, as one character observes, "drunk on their own mythology."

After a long quest, Ingo ultimately finds himself in Poland, at a utopian village called Arndtheim that he first visited with Isaac in 1929. Only now Arndtheim has a Hitler Youth Hall and, inside it, a scale model of the village that includes "a cluster of red-brick buildings as stately and stern as military barracks." The model even includes a rail line snaking its way past Arndtheim and into the camp. The journey from the "green world" of this peaceable utopia to the nightmare of a concentration camp is, Grant suggests, a frighteningly short one. ·

Ross King is the author, most recently, of "The Judgment of Paris."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company