In Peter Behrens's The Law of Dreams, winner of the Governor-General's Literary Award for English-language fiction in 2006, the main character, a boy, is driven from home by forces well beyond his control (Irish potato famine), to a strange land (England), where he dreams of a new life in America. In his new novel, Carry Me, the main character, a boy, is driven from home by forces beyond his control (war), to a strange land (Germany), where he dreams of a new life in America. So, Behrens has a theme, a melody that appeals to him. And why not? If there's one abiding story in human history from the last century and this one so far, it's exile, and the promise of a better life somewhere else. With the usual kicker: The better life turns out to be a phantom, and exile is all we're left with. In The Law of Dreams, Behrens treats the subject with poetic rigour. Carry Me is a looser bag, with more unconnected pieces rattling about, but the poetry is still there. Behrens is a powerful stylist.
The novel is written as diary. The diarist is young Hermann Lange, nicknamed Billy, born on the Isle of Wight in 1909 to an Irish mother and German father. "Birthplaces, nationality," Behrens-as-Billy writes, "such details have consequences in this story." And they do, from start to finish. Billy's father, Buck, is born at sea, a few days short of landfall in San Francisco where, if the timing had been better, Buck would have been born an American. As it happens, bureaucracy and bloodlines declare him a German national. Of course, Buck, born on salt water, grows up to a career on the sea, lands a job with another German national, a millionaire baron who races schooners on the Isle of Wight. Buck settles down, Billy is born and the forces beyond their control collect like storm clouds. When Germany and England go to war in 1914, Buck is swept up in the usual xenophobic hysteria, is deemed a spy and sent to prison. The millionaire escapes to the continent.
Billy's best friend on the island is the millionaire's daughter, Karin, an odd and aloof girl with whom he becomes fascinated, frustrated and, eventually (naturally), falls in love. As children, while the world crumbles around them, they dream up fantasies of escape to the American badlands, fed by their shared obsession with the cowboy novels of Karl May, a sort of Germanic Zane Grey. This is an interesting plot choice by Behrens, more than a gimmick. Hitler, too, was interested in May's books less for their pulp adventures than for the idea of sweeping landscapes open to settlers who only had to exterminate the Indians they met on the way to feed their hunger for land. For Hitler, May's books were blueprints for conquest and (arguably) the Final Solution. For Billy and Karin, they are pure escapism, but only because they're unaware of how history operates: They are German children accidentally dreaming the same dreams as the Fuhrer.
After the war, the Langes follow their millionaire benefactor to Germany. New storm clouds form. The millionaire is a Jew, and so is Karin, so their circumstances change as the Nazis come to power, and Carry Me threatens to dissolve into a long-winded variation on Casablanca: A love story told against the backdrop of National Socialism. It comes close. But what saves the book from melodrama is Behrens's deft hand on the development of his characters. There is nothing sentimental or corny about the love affair that develops between Karin and Billy. Neither of them know why their lives are so connected, and Karin especially betrays no great emotion. It feels true. They are stunned by the events unfolding around them. There is no time for textbook, potboiler romance, only survival and a stab at warmth and companionship. At times, Behrens has a cold idea of love and in this case, it's the right choice. "Perhaps if I had been able to put things in plain language," Billy writes, "it might have been plain that things between us were so damnably unequal, that I loved her as I would never love anyone else and that she loved me as a young woman might love a devoted brother… a horse that never stumbles, never shies, but takes all fences willingly, and carries her safely across."
Billy decides they have to escape, before the situation in Germany gets much worse, as the reader knows it will. On Kristallnacht, Karin's father is badly beaten and they're faced with a choice: Do they risk it all to try and get him out of the country to save his life, or escape on their own and leave him behind? In pulp novels such as Karl May's Western stories, the heroes do the right thing and are paid off by providence. In Germany, on the eve of another war, the opportunity to do the right thing will simply not emerge and so choices are made. There are no good choices, and there are no good outcomes. This, too, is the exile's fate: It's all out of your control. If exile is Peter Behrens's obsession, he's still making it work in his fiction.
Tom Jokinen is a Toronto writer.