Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rosa by Jonathon Rabb

 (Book Review)
Those of you who hung around with me in summer 2001 may recall that the last couple weeks of June I had my nose buried in “Karl and Rosa” by Alfred Doblin, as I was racing to finish it and return it to the public library before I left for Japan. (Actually you probably don’t remember that, but I was).

Now I’ve stumbled across another fictionalized account of Rosa Luxemburg and the 1918 German Socialist Revolution. This book, however, begins with the discovery of Rosa’s dead body, and creates a murder mystery around her death.

Since the circumstances surrounding Rosa Luxemburg’s death have never been entirely clear, this book takes advantage of the mysterious circumstances to create a fictional explanation for official history. What if in post-revolution Berlin there was a jack the ripper like figure who was going around carving up women? And what if Rosa Luxemburg’s body popped up among the victims? Was this simply part of a string of random killings, or are shadowy figures in the political affairs division trying to make it look that way?

(I’m not sure how exactly this gets classified as a genre. There’s a bit too much fiction in here for me to comfortably call it “historical fiction”. It might be called “alternate history”, but its not alternate history in the sense of Harry Turtledove or “1632" or the idea of history turning and going in a different direction. Rather this is an alternate explanation for established history. Does that still get classified as “alternate history”? Maybe someone could help me out with this.)

Since the time of her death Rosa Luxemburg has always been regarded with a great deal of fascination, as much for what she represents as for who she was. Rosa Luxemburg represents the last hurrah of the German Left before the downward slide into fascism. For a brief moment in 1918, it looked like Germany, along with Russia, was going to be leading the world-wide Socialist Revolution with Rosa Luxemburg and other Jewish leaders at the forefront. Then the revolution is crushed, and ten years later Germany becomes the anti-Semitic capital of the world.

Alfred Doblin, a German Jew himself, wrote his trilogy on the November 1918 Revolution during the age of Hitler. His purpose was to try and discover how the German Left could have everything in its hands, and then blow it all.

Doblin’s work focuses mainly on the failure of the 1918 Revolution. “Rosa” picks up at the end of the Revolution, and the end of “Rosa” in particular focuses on the forces of Fascism and anti-Semitism waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces. For this reason, if one were so inclined, it might be interesting to read first Doblin’s “November 1918" Trilogy, and then follow it up with “Rosa”. The themes of the one lead nicely into the themes of the other. That and the chronology fits nicely as well. “Rosa” starts just where “November 1918" finishes. Since Rosa was published in 2005, a lot more recently than Doblin’s trilogy, I’m not sure if this is intentional or not.

Even though this book takes place after Luxemburg’s death, Jonathon Rabb also makes use of excerpts from her real journal and correspondence throughout the book to help paint a picture of her, and make her into an important part of the book.

The idea of a murder mystery surrounding Rosa Luxemburg is an interesting one, however other elements of “Rosa” can boarder on cliche. The main character is a middle aged detective, who is getting over the recent death of his long time partner and best friend, killed in the line of duty. He is now instead paired with a much younger partner; someone who is eager but very green and at times annoying. He has a less than satisfactory home life and a stressed marriage. He drinks too much on occasion. He has a boss who yells at him when he crosses the line, and he has turf struggles with another internal department inside the police agency. Any of that sound like something you’ve heard/seen before?

There are a few unexpected plot twists along the way, but I suppose even that is cliche for the genre. And in fact after Umberto Eco and Dan Brown, I’m not sure if the idea of a historical setting for a murder mystery is all that original.

But perhaps originality is over-rated. Even if Jonathon Rabb doesn’t feel a need to rise above the cliches of the genre, he does a good job working within them. This was a well written book that held my attention from beginning to end.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Oxford English Dictionary records the expression "bee's knee" from 1797 as meaning something small or insignificant.
The phrase "the bee's knees", meaning "the height of excellence", became popular in the U.S. in the 1920s along with "the cat's whiskers" (possibly from the use of these in radio crystal sets), "the cat's pajamas" (pajamas were still new enough to be daring), and similar phrases that didn't endure: "the eel's ankle", "the elephant's instep", "the snake's hip" and "the capybara's spats".
The phrase's actual origin has not been determined, but several theories include "b's and e's" (short for "be-alls and end-alls") and a corruption of "business" ("It's the beezness.")


Link of the Day
More Japanese Music
Here's a link to "Nagori Yuki", which is a folk song from the 1970s. This is somewhat like the "Blowin' in the Wind" of Japan in the since that been covered by just about every folk artist at one time or another. No social significance though, it's just a love song.
The basic lyrics are "You're even prettier than when I met you last year." There was a movie made to try and flesh out the story behind the song, which I saw once on a bus ride back from Nagasaki. The movie was about a boy from th e country side who goes into Tokyo for school, and then comes back to see his old girlfriend. Because this story revolved around old country side life, it was filmed in Oita prefecture (where I lived for 3 years as a JET).

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