Broken Blades – A Review

 

broken blades

They only had one night together—a stolen interlude at the 1936 Olympics. After Mark Driscoll challenged Armin Truchsess von Kardenberg to a good-natured fencing match, there was no resisting each other. Though from different worlds—an Iowa farm boy and a German aristocrat—they were immediately drawn together, and it was an encounter neither has ever forgotten.

Now it’s 1944, and a plane crash in hostile territory throws them back together, but on opposite sides of a seemingly endless war. Facing each other as opponents is one thing. As enemies, another thing entirely. And to make matters worse, Mark is a POW, held in a cold, remote castle in Germany… in a camp run by Armin.

They aren’t the young athletes they were back then. The war has taken wives, limbs, friends, leaving both men gray beyond their years, shell-shocked, and battered. The connection they had back then is still alive and well, though, and from the moment Mark arrives, they’re fencing again—advancing, retreating, testing defenses.

Have they been given a second chance? Or have time and a brutal war broken both men beyond repair?

Fra: Broken Blades was a quietly elegant book set in a very difficult period of European History which managed to deliver a highly romantic love story. And I loved this book –  I’d be surprised if it didn’t make it into my top ten read of 2016.

My absolute favourite part of this book is the historical period in which it is set and the angle from which it is told.

This book tilts the usual victor’s rhetoric point of view by focusing on  the human weight of war on people with the added complexity of, in my opinion, a very romantic love story.

Karen: While I agree with this now, I have to say that I was very reluctant to start reading this book, not because of the quality of the writing, which I knew would be excellent. But because of the basis of the book. For a lot of people their understanding of the personal cost of WWII is formed from familial memories. My grandfather and great uncle were in German and Japanese POW camps respectively, and both of them were irrevocably changed by the experience. My Great uncle in particular was badly affected. And I suppose that I worried that any book which wasn’t incredibly serious or, in fact non fiction, could possibly do justice, if in some way setting a romance in a POW camp, especially a queer romance was trivialising the subject matter. However when authors you trust write about potentially controversial subjects , you need to have an open mind.

Fra: While I didn’t agree with your reservations in reading the book, the period of history it’s set in made me think – I am Italian, one generation over from  WWII. Half of my family is comprised of staunch communists and very active members of the Resistance and the other half is made by people who joined the Fascist war, believed in it and paid the consequences for losing it. I heard stories about the War all my life; at the sunday dinner table between my paternal, communist and part of the Resistance, grandmother and my maternal, decorated navy soldier and joiner of the RSI, I was fed stories of terror, defiance, epic naval battles, crumbling of some ideals and the insurgence of others: both simple people, both rather passionate about their beliefs but also very, acutely aware that War is more than the propaganda which causes it and that in the end the people who fight it on behalf of the powers that be are just that: people.

Over the internet I heard rumblings of very short memoried people or people who have not been touched by this war who take issue with stories written during World War II and especially written in or about Germany in that period. And I am flabbergasted: the war happened, avoiding to set fiction in this context is not going to make it go away  (i’d highly recommend Curzio Malaparte’s books set in the aftermath of the North American landing in Italy). I do demand though that the subject must be treated respectfully and faithfully and never lightly- anything else would be an insult to both the people who lost their lives and the ones who survived (like my mother who spent the first 4 years of her life in and out of bomb shelters and is still mad afraid of thunder and small places but would shove books about it down your throat so that we don’t forget). But equally damaging is to either completely avoid the subject or only tell stories manufactured by those who won it.

Fra: The romance does add another challenging dimension to the story and the implications of any relationship developing between captured and jailer is problematic in terms of power balance and consent.

I did have concerns: my concerns were appeased by two authors who obviously know exactly what they are doing and made it absolutely clear where they both stand on the matter of consent and the power balance in their story and on the War itself.

Broken Blades alternates narrative point of views between  Armin Truchsess von Kardenberg  – fencer, Wehrmacht officer, mutilated veteran of the Eastern Front and now commander of a POW camp for enemy Officers and Mark Driscoll, also a fencer, a captured American pilot now a POW in the same camp.

The first encounter between Armin and Mark happens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

I loved the way the two authors were able to capture the two cultures in detail without overpowering each other and more importantly without resorting to stereotyping.

It was refreshing to see the American team’s wonder at the Olympic village, the positive energy, the innocence of the enthusiasm and at the same time to see how it was all set up to look exactly that way. Through Armin’s disillusioned point of view we know that all is not what it looks like.

Armin’s role as host – which he performs perfectly – is the result of a rather dangerous refusal to join the SS and remain in the Wehrmacht as per his family tradition; a choice that has lost him a place on the Olympic team but still leaves him with the knowledge not only that what the guest athletes are experiencing is heavily choreographed but also of the warmongering intentions of the Reich.

Mark and Armin’s first encounter is beautifully described: both young men, full of potential and possibilities – I loved the innocence in Mark and the mischievous side of Armin’s character.

Fast forward to 1944 and the worst war in human history has been raging for almost 5 years. Both men have married – one, Armin out of love, the other Mark out of wanting to repress the feelings stirred by the encounter with Armin. Both men have lost their wives, one killed in an Ally bombardment the other to divorce. Both men have been rather changed by the war; especially Armin who has lost an arm – his fencing arm – on the Eastern front.

When Mark crash lands his plane in enemy’s territory he and his crew are captured and transferred to the POW camps. The officers to Armin’s post.

Mark’s despair at the situation while being transported is heartbreaking – surrounded by his shell shocked men his thoughts turn dark. I appreciated that this was done in a very genuine way. There isn’t in the writing the typical language of the “North American We Are The Just and Will Win Everything” present in so much post War narrative: the author manages to convey elegantly and succinctly the desperation of a man caught in an objectively dreadful situation.

Karen: I agree Fra, the love story here is beautiful. The risks of being queer at that time, and very specifically in Germany , were huge , concentration camps weren’t just for Jews and the liberal hedonism of the 1920’s was long gone. There is a sense that as both their lives were so damaged by the war, they almost have nothing left to be afraid for. And that makes this sound like such a depressing book, whereas it’s not, while there is sadness and loss on both sides and for both men, the burgeoning relationship brings them both back to life.

And the good/ bad balance is marvelous – how easy would it have been to make all the Germans apart from Armin bad, and all the Allies wonderful, but it’s blurry. In fact the relationship between Armin and Schafer is so affirming and ‘normal’ .

Karen: Balancing historical accuracy against the need to have impetus in a story is a very delicate thing, and overall for me Broken Blades achieved this. I don’t think that setting this at any time other than the end of WWII would have worked. If I have one criticism it would be that the book develops slowly and beautifully and the end seems somewhat tagged on, in that it was sudden.

Fra: I totally agree with regards to the actual timing of the story.

War in general is soul destroying – WWII was the worst armed conflict in human history. Both protagonist arrive at Oflag Ahlenstieg as broken men and there is a sense of fatality surrounding their relationship that it is difficult to ignore.

To be completely honest I did not think that Armin was going to make it out alive. It isn’t unknown   for the Gestapo to have eliminated some of their own – especially if in the Wehrmacht –  during the retreat and it wasn’t improbable for the Russians to have swept in after the SS’s retreat. Neither options would have gone well for Armin and his men, which  had a lot to do with his decisions in the book, including distancing himself from Mark as to avoid any attention to him.

I also agree that they both behave as they have very little left to lose. No families to go home to, a crumbling world order and disgust at the act of war in itself seem to be the catalyst to a lot of the characters decisions and agency in the book.

I am actually very happy with the ending: consider that I thought Armin was either going to get killed by the Gestapo or put a bullet through his head – so I  was so relieved when the US Army came in instead of  the Russians. But I also think that the end gives credit to what I was saying before. Armin’s main focus at the end is to protect all of the people in his charge. Both his men and the POW.  I also like the fact that the Epilogue was set sometimes after the war thus giving Mark and Armin the possibility at a real start of a relationship unburdened by the horrors of war and unequal power.

All in all this was a quietly elegant novel. Uncompromising in its account of the effects of War on people but ultimately delivering a compelling message of hope through a well thought out and unexpectedly romantic relationship.

Highly recommended

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