“To study history means submitting to chaos and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning.” –Hermann Hesse
Well, that’s easier said than done. In historical fiction, more so than the classroom, we find the lessons we must learn and commit to memory, however hard it is to reconcile with any kind of faith in humanity. Toss in a little magic realism, and what harm is done? None, in “Sirius: A Novel About the Little Dog Who Almost Changed History” by Jonathan Crown, translated from German to English by Jamie Searle Romanelli.
On the heels of “The Perfect Horse” by Elizabeth Letts, a marvelous nonfiction account of priceless horses rescued in the closing days of World War II, I was sorely in need of some feel-good reading. “With charisma, heart, and delightfully spry prose,” the synopsis promises, “Sirius is an enchanting fairy tale about love and humanity and a roving exploration of a momentous historical moment.”
It’s also heart-rending, at times, and unsparing in its honesty. A fox terrier in 1938 Berlin loses his home, his familiar neighborhood where people greet him by name, and even his name. Levi’s Jewish owners, the Liliencrons, rename him Sirius, after the “Big Dog” constellation, to protect him. Levi is flattered. “But at the same time he feels the responsibility weighing down on both himself and the star – of being a glimmer of light in the darkness. Dogs called Rusty have an easier time of it.”
The humor and insight of this preternatural terrier show up in line after line. Make me laugh, and you’ll rise to the top of my list of favorite writers. Like the stereotype of Blacks dancing better than whites, Jews seem to have mastered wit and humor like no other marginalized people in literary history. I’m officially smitten with Jonathan Crown, just as I’ve been with Robert Silverberg (“The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV,” a 1972 short story, is a classic example of what I might label as Jewish humor).
“Jonathan Crown” is a pseudonym. Born in Berlin in 1953, journalist Christian Jämmerling dedicates the book “For my family, who lived in Berlin during that period.” I’ve no doubt that the most wrenching scenes in this story come straight from real life, from first-hand accounts of people who were there, who experienced the worst fates we can imagine.
Immersed in the point of view of a dog, readers might scoff at the cognitive genius of this furry, four-legged creature, but to write off this book as unrealistic is to miss out on a truly fantastic story. As if by magic, Sirius shifts from his native German to understanding words spoken in English. He even learns how to spell and to use the piano to convey what he’s learned via espionage (our magical dog cannot speak human). Any reviewer who’d fault the book for such “plot holes” is missing the boat. And this is one ride you don’t want to miss.
Carl Liliencron is a professor who studies microscopic plankton. “Anything bigger than ten thousandths of an inch is of no interest to me,” he’s fond of saying. He studies living things which are 3.5 billion years old, and they’re rarely mentioned in the newspapers. He doesn’t care to read about politics, Hitler, and the future: these things are “all too big.”
But then Nazi troops storm Berlin. After a harrowing escape, the “Jewish dog” and his family flee to California. Liliencron can’t believe the magnificent villas, the view of a landscape reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands: “Now it’s finally clear where the sun is when it’s absent in Berlin–in Hollywood.” This new life “often plunges him into extistential-philosophical moods.” The dog adjusts well, while the professor wonders if they’re caught in Einstein’s curvature of space-time.
Liliencron becomes a chauffeur, while Sirius befriends everyone from Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant to Rita Hayworth and Jack Warner. Renamed Hercules, he becomes a canine movie star. A series of events, each seemingly the worst thing that could have happened, turn out to be blessings in disguise, reminding me that the Japanese word for crisis can also mean opportunity.
It also reminds me of a Hebrew expression, “Gam zu l’tovah,” (oops, Gam ze letova, my Israeli friend tells me) –“Even this is for the best” — from a column by Lenore Skenazy. She mentions the parable of Rabbi Akiva camping in the woods with his donkey, rooster and candle. While it’s “insulting to say that all bad things are really for the best,” Skenazy concludes, “…taking action, sometimes out of sheer misery, can change life for the better.” (www.creators.com, September 15, 2016).
The story of Sirius illustrates this wisdom in scene after seemingly hopeless scene. Levi, renamed for the Big Dog constellation, “transformed himself into a star, Sirius, and saved his family’s life. Only he who transforms himself survives.”
“Humans have been around for 160,000 years,” murmurs Liliencron. “And yet it only took Hitler five to destroy humanity.”
As World War II unfolds, Levi-Sirius-Hercules accidentally ends up in Berlin again, gets renamed again, and becomes the favorite dog of Hitler himself. How can a mere dog help the German resistance, depose the Führer, and find his family?
An omniscient narrator commands the point of view. Early in the Liliencron family’s assorted adventures, a movie mogul reminds an actor “I made you.” We also get the narrator’s interpretation: “The words sound as though God is speaking to one of his creatures, moved by the memory of the day when it learned to walk upright and become a human being. And that’s exactly how it is. In Hollywood, Jack Warner is God.”
But Warner has his good side: “Good old Jack Warner. He helps countless Jews to escape from Germany, he pulls strings in the White House, he takes the new arrivals under his wing and directs their journey from suffering to happiness, called destiny. He is a one-man dream factory.”
So many real-life people are named in this book, I had to learn more about them. Jacob (Jack) Warner was born in 1892 to a Polish Jewish immigrant family in Ontario. Reputedly crude and difficult, the real Warner sounds worse than Crown’s version. Warner made, or saved, the careers of numerous celebrities from Errol Flynn to Joan Crawford. He also accused some of his staff of being Communists, ruining their careers. Warner ousted his brothers from the family business that they had founded together and severed ties with his son. His brothers never spoke to him again. (www.haaretz.com)
Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda, is another real-life character who appears in this story. “The German people,” he says, “have to defend their most holy assets: their families, their women and children, their beautiful and pristine landscape, their towns and villages, the two-thousand-year legacy of their culture, and everything that makes life worth living.” It’s impossible to fathom how he reconciled this “holy” obligation with the imperative of torturing and murdering millions of other lives. A little bit of xenophobia is part of human evolution, but taking it to the extreme of exterminating others is beyond comprehension. This is one of many facets of a story rich with food for thought.
Here’s another: in desperation, the Germany Army plots fantastical ideas for a new wonder weapon. “The prototype of a UFO, built in the Skoda factories, turned out to be a failure. So now there was a new plan: Why not fire dogs into the enemy lines?” Just inject them with a neurotoxin “which would be released on impact and destroy everything in their vicinity.”
This facet of history may not be well known: a law forbidding Jews from keeping pets. “They are instructed to immediately put their dogs or cats to sleep. Germans are forbidden from keeping Jewish pets.” Jewish cats and dogs? Rational, educated Germans managed to believe this stuff? It staggers the imagination.
This is “the kind of thing that usually gets forgotten,” Crown narrates, but in World War II Germany, “the birds are being looked after… The soldiers on the front receive guidelines on the construction of nesting boxes and feeders. Tons of hemp seed and sunflower seeds are transported to the front, as winter sustenance for the birds.”
Yes, the Nazis cared about small, vulnerable creatures. Cognitive dissonance, anyone? The infamous Third Reich commanded a Department for Bird Protection (and Forest and Nature Conservation). It’s forgotten details like these that keep me returning to that most brutal and horror-laden genre, historical fiction.
“We Germans are a people of the forests,” Goering wrote. “Unlike the Jews. They are a people of the desert.” Well, now this is beginning to sound familiar. “A bird singing in the forest is the most beautiful German song in existence.”
Not so incredibly, then, Walt Disney’s “Snow White” is one of Hitler’s favorites. (For real.) The evil dictator “likes to unwind by watching Hollywood movies.” And college basketball, I’ve read elsewhere. It’s unsettling to see a human side to the world’s most notoriously evil dictator. Hitler had a dog who loved him. More than one dog, in fact.
For a long time, I couldn’t reconcile this gentler, more humane side of the Nazis with their unthinkably horrific torture and mass murder of fellow human beings. Then it dawned on me that vegans will forego dairy products and eggs (potential lives), while allowing millions of human fetuses to be scalded, dismembered, and vacuumed from their mothers’ bodies. I’m not denouncing anyone’s ethics and morality, legal rights and politics, here; just pointing out that people, as a whole, do in fact hold conflicting ideals simultaneously. I’m not defending Germans, Hitler, or Nazis, either, when I marvel at their capacity to display a better side, even a kinder and gentler side.
Help! My brain hurts!
In no way have I come close to summarizing the plot twists, surprises and delights in this novel. No spoilers here. We all know Germany loses. It’s safe to say that one of the most memorable scenes is that of a Hausfrau with her broom, sweeping away the aftermath of war from the streets of Berlin. The woman has gone mad, of course, but this small scene illustrates so much of what I love about the German people as I knew them, all third-generation Americans, all thoroughly “German” in their ways. I grew up with cuckoo clocks, braided blondes in St. Pauli girl dresses, sauerkraut, bratwurst, hard work, thrift and industry, a dad who sometimes yodeled on his tractor, and a certain pride in a heritage that novelist Frank Norris called “a foul stream of hereditary evil.”
As the Hebrew phrase “Gam ze letova” expresses Jewish wisdom, this novel shines a light on the darkest chapter in human history. Crown’s tragicomic approach to themes of exile, flight, expulsion, and homelessness make a profound and lasting impression.
First released in Germany, the novel received overwhelmingly positive feedback. I look forward to more from this writer.