Author: Ken Follett
Publisher: Penguin, 2012
Ken Follett is a master of epic tales. He has woven mesmerising stories with wide arrays of memorable characters who are the warp and weft of the fabric of history. They are characters who either shape the history or are shaped by it. They are masters or victims. But they are never puppets dangling from the mechanical fingers of some robotic history. They are the normal human beings, partly good and partly evil, some strong and others weak, some of whom dare while others cower.
Winter of the World differs from those novels, however. Its characters are more puppets dangling from the warp and weft of history. The real persons who shape and manipulate the history are Hitler and Stalin. Yet they hardly appear in the novel; they work like invisible gods through their agents, the Gestapo and the NKVD, both of which are ruthless in hunting down perceived enemies.
The plot of the novel spans from 1933 to 1949 – from the rise of Hitler in Germany to the disillusionment of Europe with Communism or Socialism. In the world of both Hitler and Stalin, incompetent but loyal people are promoted to jobs that they cannot cope with. Blind loyalty is the only virtue. People who are blindly loyal are no better than the terrorists of today’s gods: they act without ever seeing beyond the tip of their nose. They are incapable of any better vision.
Winter of the World is populated with such people and their victims. The problem with such a world is that we admire none. The winners don’t deserve our admiration any more than the perpetrators of religious bomb blasts. The victims are too pathetic to elicit normal human sympathy. Imagine, for example, a young woman who has to swab her vagina with grease before having to lie down on a patient’s table in a doctor’s room with her skirt pulled up so that Stalin’s Red Army soldiers can shed their lust one by one... Imagine the little boys and girls picked up by Hitler’s Gestapo to be thrown into the incinerator because they are handicapped and hence not fit to live in a world of healthy Aryans.
In Winter of the World the good people are victimised one way or the other. The bad people are the winners, the rulers. That’s why it is the winter of the world. But such a world may not generate good fiction. Good fiction mercifully leaves us with some consoling peeps into the flickering goodness of humanity, a goodness that lingers despite the marauding wickedness. Winter of the World provides no such consolation.
History is the real protagonist in Follett’s historical novels. But when it is more history than fiction, it may end up as a bizarre world of devils and their tail-hugging cretins. Winter of the World suffers from this drawback. But Follett does succeed in weaving yet another epic tale just as he did in his earlier historical novels.
My Reviews of Follett’s other historical novels:
Winter of the World is a sequel to Fall of Giants and is the second book in the Century trilogy.