I didn't learn in school that "homosexuals" were a group targeted by the Nazis. I distinctly remember first hearing about it in the late 80s from the silence = death campaign created during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. When I came across Justine Saracen's new novel, Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright, I was intrigued by its focus on gay and lesbian Germans trying to negotiate the Nazi regime and WWII.
The novel covers twelve years (from September 8, 1935 to April 18, 1945) in the lives of several characters and explores what each does or doesn't do to resist the barbarity of Nazism and cope with the horrors of war. There were some surprises within the story that I didn't see coming and the novel kept up at a good pace.
The opening scene is right out of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935). It literally is. The novel opens on September 8, 1934 with Katja Sommer, the main protagonist, wrapping up the filming of Riefenstahl's masterpiece in Nuremberg. Katja is a young women hoping to build a career in film making, but the job with Riefenstahl was only temporary. Katja is engaged to Dietrich, but is in no hurry to marry her kind, but dull fiancé who is already succumbing to the Nazi's propaganda such as the proper role for women within the Reich (make babies, keep house).
Everyone is full of hope and excitement over the creation of this film, but already there are rumblings of trouble. Riefenstahl insists that the movie she's creating is not propaganda for the Nazi Party. She may declare that "Art is not political," but readers know what is about to unfold.
While Dietrich is off serving in the army, Katja scores a full-time job working for Riefenstahl. She befriends two men, Rudi and Peter, who, she comes to realize, are lovers. Then there's her odd attraction to Frederica Brandt who used to work for Riefenstahl, but now works for Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda. Katja is doing her best to go along with the flow, but when a friend is arrested under Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code (prohibiting male homosexuality) her perspective on what makes one a "Good German" shifts.
The plot really takes off from there and I won't go into more detail because to do so would spoil the reading.
The only stumbling point I had with the novel is that Saracen takes her scenes of the fall of Berlin from the movie Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004) to a degree that made me uncomfortable. It made sense to replicate part of Triumph of the Will in the opening of the novel because the creation of that film is part of the actual story Saracen creates. In a postscript she acknowledges "drawing from" Der Untergang, which I was relieved to see, but it still doesn't sit well with me.
But don't let that keep you from reading Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright. It's a historical novel that is both gripping and heartfelt. I hope it finds a wide audience.
Bold Strokes Books, March 2012
Source: digital review copy via Net Galley
Recommend to WWII historical fiction fans and LGBT fiction readers.