BEN PASTOR on the Martin Bora Series
On mysteries and salvation:
or, what is a man like Martin Bora doing in the uniform he wears?
What is real about a character like Martin Bora’s, and where does he come from?
Not easy to say. “Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.” So wrote Joseph Conrad in the opening of Under Western Eyes. The implication is that any conversation, or even language itself, could be a potential repository of lies, or at the least of non-adherence to the truth. Many years after Conrad, semiologist Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) theorized: “Every time there is signification, the possibility arises that it be used in order to lie.” Written language is doubly suspicious. What, then? The question of how real a literary character might be runs against the twofold obstacle of its being narrated, and in written words to boot.
Yet, in my opinion, just as we have who knows how many perfect lookalikes among the nearly seven billion people now living, there must exist (or have existed) someone like Martin Bora. We never invent anything.
This said, Martin-Heinz Douglas Wilhelm Friedrich von Bora, as his 1913 baptismal record reads, is a young man whose fictional adventures - between the ages of 23 and 31 - span the years 1937-1945. These are incidentally the years elapsing between the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), great maneuvers for a global conflict, and the end of the Second World War (1939-1945). Aptly so, given that Bora is a career soldier. By choice. Yes, also by choice. But coming from landed gentry that always considered the profession of arms an existential source of pride, perhaps saying “choice” is not entirely correct.
He grows up in the revanchist aftermath of the Great War, in a family of intellectuals and career officers, raised in the national myth of the “stab in the back,” which was for the younger German generations what the myth of a “mutilated victory” was for Italian nationalists. That is, a belief that their country deserved better from the immense disaster of war (victory in the case of the Germans, territorial gain in the case of the Italians) – if only the army had not suffered internal treason of various kinds, politically and racially identifiable. From a conservative but enlightened Saxon family, Roman Catholic notwithstanding his descent from Katharina von Bora - former Cistercian nun and Martin Luther’s energetic wife - Bora has Scottish ancestors on his mother’s side, the proud blood of the Douglases who fought with William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.
I have often had the opportunity to remark how Bora’s outline matches the character of Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg (1907- 1944), Hitler’s unlucky would-be assassin. Dashing, highly educated, a music lover, the Catholic Stauffenberg is a romantic hero par excellence. Like him, other young aristocrats serving in the German Armed Forces (Yorck von Wartenburg, Werner von Haeften, the von Boeselager brothers...) distinguished themselves for their bravery on the battlefield as well as for their heroic participation in the Resistance, unto imprisonment, torture, and even death.
However, I would like to point out the differences between Bora and his factual avatar. Bora’s painful awareness of his political choice, and the resulting process of opposition to Nazism, is more rapid and less tied to the adverse fortunes of war. Also, it is displayed in daring, daily acts of disobedience (which we would term “civil” if the context allowed) to criminal orders. In this, he somewhat resembles Oskar Schindler, who was, even as Bora is, a member of German counterintelligence - the Abwehr - and who earned his place as “just among the nations” by saving from certain death his Jewish workers and employees in Poland. Furthermore, if Bora is an all-out soldier, stoic as his Victorian education demands, he is also a man of strong sexual impulses, which for a period of his fictional life find the perfect counterpart in his haughty, unabashed wife Benedikta. After all, didn’t they grow up in the jazz age, presaging the sexual revolution in the modern West?
All this is preordained, it could be said, and a such, the product of a specific choice. Of course. Sketching Bora’s character (as also the protagonists of my other cycles, from the Late Roman soldier-historian Aelius Spartianus to the odd couple of Prague investigators, Solomon Meisl and Karel Heida), everything is option, selection, sorting out.
As far is Martin Bora is concerned, what intrigues me most is to understand what others expect of him: family, teachers, wife, commanders, colleagues; what his conscience demands of him. If conflict is the essence of narrative, multiplying the levels of conflict can only raise the ante, all the more since Bora is not so much a man against as he is an individual whose education clashes only in part with the prevailing sentiment, the Weltanschauung of the culture around him.
Elsewhere I observed that my principal task vis-à-vis Martin Bora is to try to save his soul. In truth, this is an undertaking that, one novel after the other, deeply involves Bora himself. If in its quality of “absolute evil” national socialism can be recognized (and so the weapons needed to fight it), not so easily defined are the boundaries of fervid patriotism, longing for national redemption, blind trust in an ideology seemingly intentioned to right wrongs and abolish unjust privileges. For Bora, family obligations, religious tenets, a severe academic and military upbringing, forge his individuality to the extent of making it into something quite different from what it was at birth. But isn’t it a fact that everything - that life itself- forges, shapes and potential distorts what each of us was in childhood?
The notion of the Conradian double, an alter ego with whom the protagonist finds himself dialoguing or contending, is often resolved in literature (especially where mysteries are concerned) through the creation of stable or occasional investigative pairs. While in my Prague cycle Heida and Meisl - the young Austro-Hungarian lieutenant and the famous Jewish physician - constitute a constant duo, Martin Bora occasionally finds interlocutors-collaborators. Such is Father Malecki in Lumen, or Italian Police Inspector Sandro Guidi in Liar Moon and Kaputt Mundi, or political exile Luigi Borgonovo in The Dead in the Square. Down deep, however, Bora is a loner, even as characters in some great Western films (The Searchers is an example) interact fully with the world around them but remain intimately separate from it. The last frame in John Ford’s masterpiece, where an unforgettable John Wayne is shown walking away in the sun through the doorway of a dark interior (which is however home, family, comfort), is perfectly representative of the hero who never quite becomes “attached” to people or things, even when he has risked his life for them.
In the series as developed thus far, from the fourth novel on Bora must face up to the serious injuries suffered during a partisan attack in northern Italy, namely the loss of his left hand. Given the Nazi cult of physical perfection, in view of a marriage relation based on mutual impeccability, wholeness and good looks, and because of Bora’s lifelong passion for piano music, the mutilation - even though it does not appreciably affect his military successes, much less his erotic prowess - is nearly unbearable. Thus in Bora’s journey there’s an identifiable before and after: in fact, more than one. There’s a before and after injuries, before and after Stalingrad’s hell, before and after Benedikta, and especially before and after his moral and political disillusionment. But please note, I was never interested in portraying Bora as a convert unrecognizable from his former self. I was never interested, nor am I interested in making him sanctimonious, politically correct, rehabilitated, normalized. Bora is and remains a faithful German soldier with all that “collective guilt” implies, a conservative and a patriot, a restless Catholic, a man in love with love for whom every relation eventually does not live up to the dreamed ideal.
Detection, I am beginning to understand after seven novels and with number eight in progress, becomes for Martin Bora part of the business of living. Note: not of his military business (he is not a professional investigator, and often his inquiries are accidental), but of the very way he sets himself before reality. He is curious, attentive, notices the minutiae, the seemingly irrelevant detail; his senses are alert and his mind sensible and discriminating: his ideal brothers are in equal measure Natty in The Last of the Mohicans and the even-tempered Marlow in Heart of Darkness. The only literary investigator with whom he shares a recognizable trait - a tranquil melancholy veined with humor - is very different from him: Police Inspector Maigret.
So, going back to the opening sentence: who knows what is real, and it’s hard to say where Martin Bora comes from. For me, he was born as every child is made, no matter if intentionally or by accident. Like a flesh-and-bone son, he has belonged to himself since birth. I limit myself to the acknowledgment of his qualities and defects, trying to relate them all without misrepresenting his nature. I continue to love him, feel for him and listen to him (he is too self-aware to need scolding), having for a long time granted him permission to come and go freely. The door for Martin Bora is always open, and even though I feel anxious for him, I do not place restrictions on him. I trust his decisions, or perhaps I believe that truly, sooner or later, his soul shall be saved.