Book Review: The Scent of Lemon Leaves

I haven’t done a particularly brilliant job on the house today. Sure, I tidied up my bookshelves in the hall but as for the living room, it is a worse mess than when I got up this morning. Now it’s after 9 pm and I’m tired. I am even too tired to knit, which is saying something. So I give up. There’s still one-half of the weekend left for cleaning the house. I am going to make some tea, nicely, in a teapot, and take it on a tray into the bedroom with a pile of books and camp in there until morning. If you can’t conquer the housework, just retire into the least bad room where you don’t have to look at it. That’s my thoughts, anyway.

While I was in Chile I read The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchez (2010), and it was fascinating. I keep thinking about it, which is always a sign of a good book. It is about ageing. Most of the characters are in their 80s. It concerns a former concentration-camp inmate, Julian, who has returned from Argentina to Europe to track down some elderly Nazi war criminals who are living lives of brittle luxury in a Spanish coastal town. He forms an unlikely alliance with a rather immature young Spanish woman, Sandra, who is pregnant and running away from her problems. She has befriended a couple of the Nazis, Karin and Frederik, without understanding who they are, and they have rather eagerly stepped into the role of substitute grandparents for her, in exchange for which she provides them with some company and a sense of the future. Sandra isn’t the brightest lamp in the street and it takes a while for Julian to persuade her that she’s mixing in a social circle that she might find difficult to leave. Eventually, at the last minute, she successfully escapes and Julian confronts his former captors.

It’s an interesting book because on the one hand it is a quite exciting and page-turning thriller. Sandra grows more and more pregnant and hence vulnerable, as the web of Karin, Frederik and their Nazi friends wraps itself around her. Will Julian be able to rescue her? Will he himself make it out of town and ultimately out of their house alive? These people are ruthless killers. On the other hand, nobody is in a position to act in a great hurry. Sandra dawdles. Karin is in poor health and needs to be driven back and forth to doctor’s appointments and physiotherapy. Julian is frail and his days of Nazi-hunting adventures are necessarily punctuated by naps and worries about his dwindling financial resources and regular breaks in which to eat and take a cocktail of pills. His final conversation with Frederik, in which he confronts this fearsome and vicious torturer – there’s quite a lot of detail about the concentration camps and the important figures therein, that seems to be historically accurate, by the way – is on the one hand quite nail-biting and on the other hand as measured, quiet and free from shouting and histrionics as you would expect of a conversation between two men of advanced years.

I read some reviews of this book and some readers didn’t like it because they felt that justice wasn’t served in the end and there wasn’t a big dramatic show-down. Karin and Frederik aren’t handed over to the police or dramatically unmasked in a public way. There’s just this conversation between Frederik and Julian, Frederik lets Julian out alive and Julian in turn leaves them to spin out the last years of their lives. I had the impression that some people felt cheated by this. The ‘bad guys’ don’t get their come-uppance. Julian’s nail-biting quest seems to have resulted in … nothing. But I feel that such a complaint misses the point of the book. Frederik and Julian do face each other, they do meet once again, outside of the concentration camp, after the war. Frederik is made to realise that he hasn’t hidden himself successfully, he hasn’t escaped his past. Julian has his moment – to look Frederik in the eyes, to have a conversation with him that has a new dynamic, with Frederik no longer a man of great power and Julian no longer a prisoner. Julian has done what he needed to do. He doesn’t need dramatic explosions and police chases. Those are the expectations of a younger man. Julian and Frederik confront the shape and status of their lives, near the end of their lives. It isn’t inappropriate or unconvincing. It is handled in the way that Julian decides to handle it.

The least convincing character is Sandra. She seems almost implausibly dim and forms an emotional attachment to a young hanger-on of the gang of old Nazis that has no obvious cause, unless it is that she is overwhelmed by pregnancy and the prospect of being a single mother. Julian, Karin and Frederik, though, are beautifully written. Julian, melancholic, cautious. Karin, whiny, brittle, a shadow of the hard-faced, hard-hearted ‘nurse’ who assisted with gruesome murders five decades earlier. Frederik, proud, erect, still a dangerous man but also one who knows better than to act upon impulse.

It’s both exciting and thoughtful, quite an accomplishment, to be both at once. Recommended. 1 Books point.


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