I’m just back from The Guardian newspaper’s inaugural Open Day. I hadn’t really heard much about it until this week but was drawn in by an email inviting me (as a subscriber to all things Guardian Book Club) to an interview with Robert Harris to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first novel, Fatherland.
I’ve not read Fatherland but I have read Imperium and Pompeii (see number 41. in 2011’s Book Nook exploits). So based on these two and a successful first Guardian Book Club outing late last year, I bought myself a ticket.
The premise of Fatherland is this: What would happen if Hitler had won the war? It’s an interesting idea. What sort of world might we live in now had just one or two things fallen Hitler’s way?
There is actually a genre for this sort of book – Alternate History – where facts are extruded into the what if scenarios of the author’s imagination and with Harris’ CV including time as political editor at The Observer, I was looking forward to an interesting discussion.
And what a thought provoking hour it turned out to be. Harris admitted that he had not read this novel since it was published in 1992 but spoke of his love for finding out the facts and then exploring the possibilities around them. Not for him the realms of pure fantasy: he actually likened his lack of appreciation to garlic and vampires. But his passion for his genre was evident as he spoke about the extraordinary lifecycle of power and politics, proposing views of his own and discussing the opinions of others.
His own exploration of political power both as a political journalist/editor and as a writer suggests to him that the horror of the Holocaust is not so far away from you and I: the persuasive nature of power nurtures behaviours which promote survival and he talked about the Nazi Party as simply a bunch of lawyers and administrators who, as the majority of humankind would do, protected their own interests – families, friends, life itself – and found themselves embroiled in a new, albeit inconceivable, staus quo.
Harris also spoke of books he’s loved and Kingsley Amis and Martin Cruz-Smith rated a mention as writers of particular brilliance. (Although upon racing home, I was disappointed to find no mention of Gorky Park on Amazon’s list of e-books for Audrey – boo! I say).
Much to my relief the discussion was so varied and interesting that interviewer John Mullan did not have the opportunity to quiz Harris about the ending of Fatherland (which a book club interview usually does) so it is with unexpected curiosity that I can look forward to tucking into Fatherland sans spoilers.
Harris’ eloquence and his knowledge of and passion for his subject made the hour go very quickly and I’m glad I ignored the delights of my sunny back patio this afternoon for this opportunity to explore some new ideas. And as I wandered back to Kings Cross station in the sunshine, I found myself smitten all over again with this fabulous city I’ve come to call home.