Ms Kaminsky has based her novel on the 1938 expedition by Ernst Schäfer to Tibet. The expedition, funded by the Schutzstaffel (SS) to find the origins of the Aryan race:
‘You are to bring back evidence of what we already know is the truth – that our pure German blood comes from an ancient warrior race born in the foothills of the Tibetan Himalayas.’
In this novel, Ms Kaminsky explores what motivates Ernst Schäfer. As a child he spent a lot of time in the forest with his childhood sweetheart Herta: he loved nature. But in 1938, on the eve of war and now married to Herta, Ernst comes to the attention of Heinrich Himmler. Ernst is torn by his ambition, becomes obsessed and makes compromises that corrupt.
‘I don’t give a damn what hocus-pocus they are conjuring up in that haunted castle of theirs. If Himmler wants to believe ancient Aryans conquered Asia, who am I to challenge him? As long as he coughs up the money for this trip, I’m happy.’
And Herta? She senses danger but remains loyal.
‘Where was that young child who would frolic in the woods? Some days she still saw, him bathed in sunlight, the boy she knew before, eyes the colour of honey. But duty had blocked his ears to her pleas, while Tibet oozed in through the cracks in the windowpane and floated in through the front door.’
There’s another voice in this story: the voice of a panda cub. This panda cub was shot and stuffed by Ernst Schäfer and is (still) in the Philadelphia Museum of National History. The panda cub provides a view back through events from 2019, his observations reminding us that while time passes, attitudes can remain constant. The panda cub is yet another victim.
‘To collect was to control.’
Initially I found the voice of the panda cub disconcerting, but once I focussed on the message rather than the messenger, it worked beautifully for me. A panda, trapped behind glass, reminding us (oh so gently) of the value of life. Reminding us that destruction is so often a consequence of understanding.
‘We are men of science, not followers of fairytale and superstition.’
And Herta? She provides the flicker of light in this story, a hope that the world can move beyond madness. I kept reading and hoping. I had no idea, when I picked this novel up, where it would take me. I had no idea how uncomfortable I would be during much of the novel. I had no idea how moved I would be. I had no idea.
I finished this novel, full of conflicting feelings about the content, full of admiration for the way in which Ms Kaminsky wrote it. It is haunting and heartbreaking, a novel to read and reflect on.