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'A Small Death In Lisbon' by Robert Wilson

Thriller carves a place in the larger historical picture

Sunday, October 22, 2000

By Michael Helfand

 
 

A Small Death In Lisbon

By Robert Wilson

Harcourt
$25.00

   
 

The guiding principle of this novel, which won the Golden Dagger Award for the best crime novel of 1999 in England, seems to be ďTiny acorns from great oaks do fall.Ē

In this case, the acorn is the death of a teen-age girl, Catarina Oliviera, daughter of a prominent Lisbon lawyer. Her nude body is found on a beach in contemporary Lisbon. But the narrative turns quickly back in time to the oak, Nazi Germany, at war and desperately in need of mineral deposits found only in Salazarís neutral, but fascist, Portugal.

The chapters alternate. One set follows the efforts of veteran homicide detective Ze Coelho and his rookie assistant, Carlos Pinto, to find out who sexually assaulted and killed the rebellious, drug-taking teen.

The others describe the life of Klaus Felsen, a cynical German manufacturer who is ordered to Portugal by Hitlerís military planners, first to increase the supply of wolfram (tungsten) shipped back to Germany and later, when it is clear Germany will lose the war, to smuggle gold (some from Holocaust victims) to South America.

First and foremost, the novel is a well-written thriller with lots of action (some not for the squeamish) appropriate to the desperate times, the high geopolitical and financial stakes and the personal passions, even obsessions, of its crucial players.

Wilsonís characters also are far more interesting than those in most thrillers. And his descriptions of historical times and places, of triumphant Germany in the beginning of the war and the bombed and depressed country as it loses, of the relative comfort and desperate intrigue in wartime Lisbon and of the affluent social anarchy of contemporary Portugal, are rich and compelling for themselves.

In short, the book creates an intense sense of intimacy (sensuous and emotional) with these times and places precisely because the richness of character and situation are well beyond the needs of the story line.

Consider the example of a minor character, Eva Brucke, madam of a thriving bordello and sometime lover of Felsen. While they are together, she shows both real feeling and cynicism. Yet Felsen feels inexplicably betrayed when he learns that she may have a relationship with his boss, SS Gruppenfehrer Lehrer, who imprisons and physically humiliates Felsen before recruiting him for his work in Portugal.

Later still, Felsen is again shocked to learn that cold and cynical Eva has been sent to a concentration camp because she was hiding Jews in her apartment.

Eva is a complicated and memorable minor character -- one of many -- in a plot driven by desire, fear, anger and expediency. These people have little direct relation to the plot, yet they provide a back story, a fictional density, that serves Wilsonís effort to give meaning to his narrative.

Most obviously, Wilsonís story is about the survival of psychological and social fascism in Portugal and, by implication, other countries as well.

Desire is at the heart of the matter -- for wealth, for political and financial power and for personal dominance. Wilsonís multigenerational narratives allow him to suggest correspondences and contrasts between the German and Portuguese fascists on the one hand, and Ze Coelho and his colleagues on the other.

Coelho, who is a likable and bright fellow as well as a harried single parent, has a daughter the same age as the murder victim. His need to catch the killer is fueled by his fears for his own daughter. And when he finds her in bed with a young man, he feels a rage not unlike a killerís.

It is an old theme in crime fiction, the near-identity of police and criminals. But whatever the story suggests about the violent legacies of fascism, it is the story, the high drama and low motives, and the strong writing that make the story live.

It may be one small death in Lisbon, but it is one giant, violent and compulsive read for mankind.

Michael Helfand teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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