Max

Konrad Von Kebnersol aka Max is the first product of a secret Lebensborn programme, a Nazi breeding plan dedicated to producing specimens of the purest Aryan perfection. Separated from his mother soon after his birth, baptised by Hitler himself and touted as the programme’s finest, he is enrolled in a Napola – a Nazi military school – along with his older friend Lukas, a ‘Germanised’ Pole who is (unbeknownst to everybody but Max) Jewish. While Lukas appears to excel at the Napola, Max is overcome by doubt and confusion betokened by his colleague’s secret identity.

Translated here by Penny Heuston from the original French, this novel brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘indoctrination from birth’. In fact, as the sophisticated first-person narrator reveals in the opening pages, a poisonous Nazi ideology has already taken hold of him in the womb! Written with an unflinching vigour, the book’s spirited, earthy humour counterbalances its many horrors without diminishing them.

Under the influence of Lukas, something like disillusionment begins to dawn on Max but, to her credit, Cohen-Scali handles this process, and their overall relationship, with much subtlety. There are some ingenious plot twists if also the odd mildly implausible detail in the action. Style-wise, the writing includes much contemporary-sounding speak which, though it has a lively effect, sometimes sits uncomfortably in its European WW2 context.

Overall, though, this is a shocking, moving and, yes, funny novel whose bleak lessons come endorsed by Amnesty International.