by Rupert Wolfe Murray
En-route to Nepal, I read about the occupation of one country by another and thought about Tibet.
I came across Len Deighton in Istanbul a few years back. I was staying with an American and found a Len Deighton book on his shelves about a detective in wartime Cairo. It was a thriller but a subtle one with a long, slow burning fuse — and now that I’m reading another of his books (SS-GB) I realise that this character-based, slow-release technique must be his literary approach.
Ever since SS-GB was first published in the late seventies I have wanted to read it, but I only did so now as it has been republished alongside the new BBC dramatisation of the story. Like a magpie attracted to shiny things, I was drawn to this books fancy new cover.
I’ve always been attracted to dystopias, “what if” historical scenarios and post apocalyptic novels such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Some people consider them depressing but they make me glad to be alive. Ever since a Tibetan monk advised me to think about death every day as it would help me appreciate life today (“tomorrow you might die” he said cheerfully) I have read these books with gratitude — that I am not living in the hell being described and that our world is more safe, wealthy and free than it has ever been.
SS-GB is a scenario where the Germans won World War Two and have occupied Britain. According to the back cover: “In February 1941 British Command surrendered to the Nazis. Churchill has been executed, the King is in the Tower and the SS are in Whitehall.”
The Sunday Telegraph says it is “a brilliant picture of Britain under German rule” — although I’m not quite sure how the Telegraph knows what Britain would be like under German rule.
The plot revolves around a grumpy London detective who says little, shows no emotion and takes ages to resolve the murder mystery that lies at the heart of this rather slow book. It’s not gripping and addictive like so many thrillers are. It’s a slow burn, but well written and I stayed with it.
As I plodded through the book I felt myself craving detail about the German victory: how did the British get defeated? Why are the Russians on the German side? How much of Europe is under Nazi control?
Part of Deighton’s genius is to only reveal a little bit at a time, like a stripper teasing her audience. Geo-political details are minimal but gradually I built up a picture of Britain under German occupation and by half way through it almost seemed normal (and if I think about it we were very close to being conquered and were only saved by a series of flukes).
Book vs Film version
How many times have you heard people say “the book was much better than the film!” and “I wish I hadn’t read the book as it ruined the film!”
I can only think of a few films that are as good as their book counterparts: No Country for Old Men, Blade Runner and The Martian come to mind.
The BBC TV series that is now showing sticks faithfully to the SS-GB plot. All the flaws I described above are reproduced in the TV version; there is a chronic lack of political overview and the main character is surely and uncommunicative. I saw a bad review in the Guardian and assume it’s being slammed by the critics.
Usually we complain about the film version not sticking to the book’s plot or, in the case of the James Bond movies, having no connection whatsoever to the original story apart from the title.
All this makes me realise how easy it is to screw up a film or TV series. There are so many things that have to be perfect: atmosphere, characters, sets, lighting, costumes, stunts, effects and of course plot. I take my hat off to any director who gets it right.
What I can say about the SS-GB TV series, and the book, is that they capture the atmosphere of life in the 1940s (or what I assume it was like) and by revealing so few details they make my imagination complete the picture.
In Britain we can sit back and ponder these thoughts, this “what if” version of history, safe in our island that wasn’t overrun by Germans in 1941. But what would have happened if the Germans hadn’t spared our army at Dunkirk, if they had deployed the biggest European battleship ever built (the Tirpitz) and if they hadn’t invaded Russia?
I’m finishing this article in Kathmandu, not far from Tibet — an independent country that was overrun by Han Chinese troops in 1949; where history was re-written and Tibet’s unique and ancient culture was suppressed. Having stolen an entire nation, China set about proving that Tibet had never really been independent.
Is this how it is when one country dominates another?