There he was, with that bit from the New York Daily News, as in the previous post:
The government of the United States of America is closed for business today, courtesy of the Republican Party. It’s a national embarrassment, like a scene from the Marx Brothers’ classic 1933 satire “Duck Soup,” only without the anarchic humor.
The coincidence was that, only a couple of hours before, Malcolm had been deep into David Downing’s thriller, Zoo Station. The good news is there are four more in the series, with a fifth due in the Spring.
What made Malcolm add it to his book bundle in the York branch of Waterstones was the chutzpah of dressing up the paperback (yes, this is probably specific to the UK edition) to look as close as possible to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther sequence (though, again, this applies to the UK editions).
By the same token Alan Furst’s novels are marketed in a somewhat similar, moody vein.
That’s not to be wondered at: they are all set in the same WW2 time-scale, and are related in theme. Mist and snow seem common to the cover-artist’s brief and concept.
We may return to this need for memes in book covers, should Malcolm feel the urge.
Anyway, all, and Malcolm can testify to this, are good cracking stuff.
The conceit is that the central character, John Russell, is a case-hardened no-longer-young, no-longer-committed member of the CP, an Anglo-American (carrying a British passport) jobbing journalist in Berlin as 1939 starts.
Within the opening chapters he is in the pay of the Russians, and reporting back to the Gestapo and the British Secret Service on this contact.
At this point in the book, he is in Cracow, expecting to make contact with his Russian “controller”, and ostensibly researching an article for the Nazi press on the lives and attitudes of Germany’s neighbours.
Then comes this:
As they drove north through the Jewish quarter Russell noticed the Marx Brothers adorning a cinema on Starowislna Street. The name of the film was in Polish, but his driver’s English failed him. He asked again at the Hotel Francuski reception, and received a confident answer from a young man in avery shiny suit. The film, which had only just opened, was called Broth of the Bird.
We were there on page 128 (of the paperback edition). Later that evening, to pass time, Russell is back at the cinema:
It was seven by the time he woke, and he felt hungry again. A new receptionist recommended a restaurant on Starowislna Street, which turned out to be only a few doors from the cinema showing the Marx Brothers movie. It was too good an invitation to miss. After partaking of a wonderful wienerschnitzel — at least Cracow had something to thank the Hapsburg Empire for — he joined the shivering queue for the evening showing.
Inside the cinema it was hot, noisy, and packed. Surveying the audience before the lights went down, Russell guessed that at least half of the people there were Jewish. He felt cheered by the fact that this could still seem normal, even in a country as prone to anti-Semitism as Poland…
The newsreel was in Polish, but Russell got the gist. The first item featured a visit to Warsaw by the Hungarian Foreign Minister, and no doubt claimed that he and Colonel Beck had discussed matters of mutual importance, without spelling out what everyone knew these were choosing their cuts of Czechoslovakia once the Germans had delivered the body. The second item concerned Danzig, with much piling of sandbags round the Polish Post Office. The third, more entertainingly, featured a man in New York walking a tightrope between skyscrapers.
The movie proved a surreal experience in more ways than one. Since it was subtitled in Polish, the audience felt little need to keep quiet, and Russell had some trouble catching all the wisecracks. And as the subtitling ran a few seconds behind the visuals, he often found himself laughing ahead of everyone else, like some eccentric cackle.
None of it mattered, though. Hed loved the Marx Brothers since seeing Animal Crackers during the last days of the Weimar Republic, before Jewish humor followed Jewish music and Jewish physics into exile. By the time Broth of the Bird was half an hour old he was literally aching with laughter. The films subject-matterthe approach of an utterly ridiculous war between two Ruritanian countries was fraught with contemporary relevance, but any dark undertone was utterly overwhelmed by the swirling tide of joyous anarchy. If you wanted something real to worry about, there were cracker crumbs in the bed with a woman expected. The only sane response to rampant patriotism was: ’Take a card!’ As the audience streamed out of the cinema, at least half the faces seemed streaked with tears of laughter.
We arrive at page 133 before Broth of the Bird transmogrifies properly back into Duck Soup, as a story-teller confidently plays with the reader, to the benefit of both parties.
Notice, too, that both the New York Daily News and Downing identify the “anarchic humour” and “joyous anarchy” that is the belly-laugh lurking not too far beneath the crust of any political pie, however stodgy.