Sunday, 11 December 2016

Good People by Nir Baram


Good People by Nir Baram 
First published in Hebrew in Israel as Anashim Tovim by Am Oved in 2010. English language translation by Jeffrey Green published by The Text Publishing Company in 2016.

Where to buy this book:
Buy the ebook from Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from Speedyhen
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s late 1938. Thomas Heiselberg has built a career in Berlin as a market researcher for an American advertising company. In Leningrad, twenty-two-year-old Sasha Weissberg has grown up eavesdropping on the intellectual conversations in her parents’ literary salon. They each have grand plans for their lives. Neither of them thinks about politics too much, but after catastrophe strikes they will have no choice. Thomas puts his research skills to work elaborating Nazi propaganda. Sasha persuades herself that working as a literary editor of confessions for Stalin’s secret police is the only way to save her family. When destiny brings them together, they will have to face the consequences of the decisions they have made.

The recent Brexit and Trump victories have made the 2016 English language publication of Good People scarily timely. I read a statistic that 89% of a population will keep their heads down and not dispute their government's actions if there is a chance of repercussions against themselves or their families. In this novel, Baram explores two everyman characters in 1939-41 Germany and Russia. Thomas, in Berlin, and Sasha, in Leningrad, aren't special people, despite how they like to see themselves. They wouldn't have made any great impact except for the fact of their existing when and where they did. They could be any one of us and, in times of fear when totalitarianism and fascism become the norm, they are likely to represent the great 'silent' majority.

Thomas lives for his marketing career and surely simply marketing government propaganda doesn't hurt anyone? Other people are actually doing far worse and Thomas only brandishes words, not guns. It's not his fault that his glib ideas are being taken seriously. Sasha is even less to blame for the horrors in her country. By encouraging prisoners to confess their crimes against the state and interpreting their stories clearly, she sees herself saving them from physical torture and more extreme punishments. Her parents' friends might not see it that way, but they are all guilty anyway.

I found it impossible to like either Thomas or Sasha, but frighteningly easy to empathise with their initial decisions. Neither considers themselves part of their state's oppressive apparatus, yet both aid the imprisonments, exile and deaths of many people. From the safe distance of reading about them in a book, I can judge both as amazingly selfish, blind and naive, but having seen the ease with which anger has been recently whipped up against Muslims (in place of Jews) and poor immigrants (in place of affluent intelligentsia), their actions are depressingly predictable. Who wouldn't try to protect themselves and their family before (or instead of) going to the aid of Others?


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Nir Baram / Historical fiction / Books from Israel

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