Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Legacy of Fascism: Jo Nesbo’s Redbreast

Given that the English translation of the second novel in the Harry Hole series, The Cockroaches, will be released sometime in 2013, it seems appropriate to wait to review the entire series. In the meantime, because of its specific theme, I offer a few reflections on Nesbo’s Redbreast (Random House, 2006)

Readers of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) will recall that some of the elder members of the dysfunctional Vanger family retained pronounced Nazi sympathies and that the family business once had strong ties with Nazi Germany. In Redbreast, Jo Nesbo investigates the role played by Nazism in Norway in World War II and its ripple effects down to the Millennium present. In particular Nesbo sets out to challenge the national myth that according to one character the Norwegian population was “fighting shoulder to shoulder against Nazism.” Nesbo achieves this feat of dispelling the national self-image through multiple switches in time, place and points of view.

This story has personal resonance for Nesbo, a former stock broker and still part time lead singer in a rock group. Before his parents met each other, his father had been among the seven thousand Norwegians who volunteered to fight alongside the Nazis against the Communists on the Eastern Front. His mother remained in Norway throughout the war and was a member of the national resistance. When his father returned home, he was branded as a traitor and spent three years in prison.

The novel opens when Harry Hole, assigned to security duty during Bill Clinton’s visit to Oslo, accidentally shoots an armed man who turns out to be a Secret Service agent whose duty was to protect the President. To avoid bad publicity, Hole is “promoted” to inspector in the Norwegian Secret Service and assigned a paper-shuffling job in which he is given the task of monitoring the activities of the resurgent neo-Nazis. One particular police report draws his attention: the finding of shells used in a powerful rifle that is the weapon of choice for professional assassins, one that could have only been smuggled into the country. Hole’s investigations lead to a group of aging war veterans who fought on the German side during the Second World War. One who is terminally ill arranges to purchase this weapon.

To understand the assassin’s motivation, Nesbo for almost half of this fast-paced and engrossing novel, alternates between Hole’s investigations in the present and action during the Second World War on the Eastern Front and a hospital in Vienna. He focuses on five Norwegians stationed near Leningrad during the siege and vividly conveys their endurance of the cold, the lice and their constant fear of sudden death as they fight against the Communists. Not all of them are Nazi ideologues; some are apolitical who joined because they were unemployed and are willing to change sides if it means more food and warmth. The most emotionally-charged moment is the sniper death of their leader, whose spirit haunts and motivates one of the unnamed survivors while convalescing in Vienna and continues to do so for the next fifty years. He becomes convinced that the official version constitutes “the great betrayal.” By celebrating Norwegians’ heroic deeds, the myth ignores the widespread collusion with the Germans under the wartime leadership of the infamous Vidkun Quisling and the shameful post-war treatment of the Eastern Front volunteers who were sentenced to jail terms and experienced discrimination for the rest of their lives. He sees his mission as executing individuals who nourished the national myth.

author Jo Nesbo
Because of the multiple perspectives, the reader knows more than Hole does about the connections between the vicious shenanigans of the neo-Nazis and the homicidal old soldier, and a subplot about a closet fascist in the Foreign Service who uses his power to sexually blackmail a woman. We wait for when or if Hole will catch up, a technique used by Nesbo to keep us reading. Yet we do not know everything: the name of the dying man, the reason why the civil servant becomes one of his victims and the identity of his most symbolic target until near the end when Hole finds and reads (along with us) the assassin’s memoir that fills in the historical and present gaps. The novel culminates in Hole’s frantic attempt to prevent a calamity, an ending that echoes The Day of the Jackal.

One final note: a shocking incident occurs about the middle of the book. We know the identity of the individual who ordered the killing and the reason for it but Hole does not. Again Nesbo deploys this technique to motivate us to read further novels in the series to find out how this episode will play itself out. He achieves his purpose.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visit

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